Good afternoon, members of the committee. I'm very pleased today to appear before the standing committee for the first time. It's a great honour and privilege to serve as Canada's Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, and I look forward to working with all committee members on fulfilling this important responsibility entrusted to me.
As someone who has gone through the immigration system, this file has a very personal significance to me. I'm extremely proud of our country's history as a place of freedom and asylum. In the 's mandate letter to me, he indicated that our immigration and refugee policy should reflect the “open, accepting, and generous” qualities of Canadians. I want to assure committee members that I take this commitment very seriously.
As I fulfill my duties in welcoming those who want to contribute to our country's success, I promise to also uphold our proud tradition of openness. In doing so, we will remain a compassionate society, and immigration will continue to play a meaningful role in our country's prosperity and future success.
In recognition of immigration's important role in our country's economic growth and future, one of the priorities identified in my mandate letter is to “Ensure the effective implementation of Canada's increased annual immigration levels.” In achieving these immigration levels, it is also a priority in my mandate letter to reduce application processing times and improve the department's services to our clients. In doing so, we aim to make application processes less complicated and more timely for all applicants.
The government appreciates the standing committee's work in this regard. I wish to thank the committee members for their study on client service. The government will take into consideration its recommendations as we work to improve our services for our clients.
As the committee members are aware, our immigration plan for 2017 will maintain the historically high levels from the previous year. At a target of 300,000 new permanent residents, this represents the highest number of projected admissions put forth by the Government of Canada in modern times.
Following Canada's response to the Syrian refugee crisis, another priority identified in my mandate letter is the important work in resettling the Syrian refugee population. To date, since our initial commitment to resettle these refugees in December 2015, Canada has resettled more than 40,000 Syrian refugees.
Our continued focus is on helping these Syrian refugees integrate and succeed in Canada. The government will continue to work with provinces and territories, service providers, community groups, and partners to help these newcomers improve their official language skills, find employment, build a social network, and establish other vital connections in order to participate in all facets of Canadian life.
Indeed, the government wants to ensure that all newcomers—not just refugees—are given the best possible chance to succeed and to become fully participating members of our society. That is why another key priority in my mandate is to work with provinces and territories to renew our focus on delivering high-quality settlement services. We will employ a rigorous approach to our data to accurately measure newcomer outcomes. This will help us to determine whether our settlement services are responding effectively to the needs of newcomers and will enable us to make improvements accordingly.
The government is also committed to advancing the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which include changes to the Citizenship Act and the oath of citizenship. To that end, I will work with my colleague, the , and expect to bring forward legislation to modify the oath in the coming months.
Mr. Chair, I appreciate this opportunity to outline some of the priorities identified in my department's mandate letter. As I've said, I look forward to working with the committee members as we fulfill these commitments and support our ultimate shared goal, which is to ensure that our immigration system best supports newcomers and Canadians.
In support of our commitments, I am pleased to present to the committee today some of the highlights of my department's supplementary estimates (C) for 2016 and 2017 and the main estimates for 2017-18.
With respect to supplementary estimates (C), the most significant allocation is the $33.2 million for the Canada-Quebec accord on immigration, which is an increase compared with previous years.
As this committee is aware, under this accord the Government of Quebec maintains responsibility for immigrant settlement and integration services in return for an annual grant. The grant amount is calculated using a year-over-year escalator that has two variables: the total increase in federal expenditures and the number of non-francophone immigrants who settle in Quebec.
Another increase in these estimates is the $10 million in additional funding for the interim federal health program, which was fully reinstated on April 1, 2016. As you know, the interim federal health program provides limited, temporary health coverage to resettled refugees, asylum seekers, and other groups until they are eligible for provincial or territorial health care plans. One of the primary cost drivers of the program is the number of asylum claimants that enter Canada each year, which is simply not foreseeable.
The department is also seeking $6.9 million in additional funding to support our increased levels for immigration. This funding will enable us to ramp up our operations here at home and abroad in order to meet the new admissions target of 300,000 immigrants in 2017.
For 2017-18 our department's main estimates amount of $1.6 billion represents a net decrease of $3.9 million from the previous year. This decrease is mainly due to the sunsetting of several projects as well as program transfers to other departments. For example, as this committee is well aware, Canada's response to the Syrian refugee crisis was an exceptional circumstance that required a designated level of funding. This resulted in an $80.1-million decrease in our annual budget for 2017-18.
Among other decreases for this year is the funding for the electronic travel authorization. As the eTA was successfully implemented in November 2016, this resulted in another $8.7-million reduction in our annual budget.
With respect to our funding increases for 2017-18, among the largest allocations are the following. We will require $33.5 million in 2017-18 to resettle 10,000 additional government-supported Syrian refugees. Under the Canada-Quebec accord, the Government of Canada will require $33.2 million for this fiscal year. We will also require $18.1 million to support an increase in the immigration levels plan related to the settlement program.
Mr. Chair, since I already spoke to many of these initiatives, I would now like to focus on some of the remaining initiatives in our main estimates. As you know, biometrics are an important tool to verify the identity of individuals. They strengthen Canada's immigration system in the process. Building on the success of the temporary resident biometrics project to expand biometrics screening to all visa-required travellers, this year IRCC will require a $15.4-million increase in funding.
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada is also seeking $4.4 million in 2017-18 to support the removal of the visa requirement for citizens of Mexico. The government is very pleased that the visa-lifting has already resulted in more Mexican travellers to Canada since we removed the visa on December 1, 2016. Within the first month of the visa-lifting, the number of trips to Canada by Mexicans almost tripled. The December volumes represent almost double those seen in December 2015.
While this is good for our bilateral relations with Mexico and our country's economy, we also recognize that there is some level of risk involved, as is the case with any visa lift. This is why we continue to monitor migration trends, including the number of asylum claims from Mexico.
The Government of Canada is committed to ensuring the success of our immigration system. We want to make sure our immigration system meets the needs of newcomers and best serves the interests of all Canadians. We must be welcoming to those who wish to help build our country and help us succeed. At the same time, we must ensure the safety, security, and health of all Canadians, that this remains paramount, and that we maintain the integrity of our immigration system. The estimates we are discussing today will help us to meet these goals.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair. I would now be happy to answer any questions the committee members may have.
Thank you, Minister, for being here in front of the committee today. I congratulate you on your new role.
I wanted to mention something from your statement. I'll read back what you said. It was to “reduce application processing times” and “improve the department's services to our clients” and make it “less complicated and more timely for all applicants” in their applications.
I would like to focus on the global skills strategy, which is a part of the department's priorities. I'm from the Kitchener-Cambridge-Waterloo area. Many of the high-tech companies, as well as the universities, rely on attracting global talent. Just to give you a few figures about the high-tech sector—these are stats from 2015—1,845 new technology start-ups have formed, raising $650 million in investment in a region of just over 500,000.
I've sat down with a lot of officials in Communitech and around the high-tech sector. Their main issue is about getting global talent and getting these skills in our region, which is expanding rapidly. Without this talent, we won't be able to further expand and get that talent and knowledge.
Could you elaborate on how the global skills strategy will benefit Canada in terms of access to global talent and what positive outcomes you see as a result?
Thank you. It's a really important question.
As you know, Canadian workers and Canadian companies have some of the best skilled workers in the world already here. In addition to that, for their future growth, development, and innovation, sometimes they need to attract the best and the brightest in the world, in addition to hiring Canadians. Those folks, in addition to their coming here and having jobs with the Canadian companies, in turn create jobs for Canadians.
It's important in the global race for talent for Canada to be well-positioned in that race and to continue to have mechanisms in place to facilitate the attraction and retention of that talent. The global skills strategy is the exact mechanism we need to make it easier for companies that are desperate for that global talent to get that talent to Canada quickly. As part of the global skills strategy, we're setting an ambitious two-week standard for processing visas and work permits for low-risk, high-skilled talent. In addition, the department will develop a dedicated service channel to help meet the foreign talent needs of companies seeking to make a significant investment in Canada.
In addition to that, we also plan to introduce a new work permit exemption for work terms of very short duration: 30 days or less. This will help sectors such as university-based research sectors to attract people on a temporary basis, enable them to get here quickly, assist the university or the company with the work that needs to be done, and then go back to their original country.
Thank you, Minister, with the exception though that for spousal sponsorships there are dedicated amounts of new monies. Your predecessor stated as much as $25 million. In this stream, I don't see a line item that specifically says that. What you're talking about overall, I get it. Overall that applies to everything, but there is no dedicated amount of money to deal with the backlog.
I urge the minister to talk to the families who are impacted by this. Families are breaking up because they have not reunited with their children and spouses. Why? Because they've come here to take care of our children in Canada. That is the reality. I'll park that there.
I'm going to move on to the safe third country agreement issue. Has the department undertaken a legal analysis with respect to the safe third country agreement? On March 10 a report was prepared by 845 of Canada's law students from 22 Canadian law schools across the country, involving 3,143 hours of legal research. They released their conclusion, and it stated that the safe third country agreement needed to be suspended.
They go on to say that Canada is in breach of the Canadian charter, and that it violates the fundamental rights of asylum seekers, who in Canada have been refused in accordance with the agreement. This finding happens to match up with the Harvard law school's finding with respect to that. They raise a number of issues, and I will put this on the record. The report echos Harvard's finding that the U.S. is in violation of the non-refoulement principle in the 1951 refugee convention. The report further states:
||The right to non-refoulement also falls under Canada’s domestic obligations under section 7 of the Charter which guarantees the right to life, liberty, and security of person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.
They also state this is also recognized by the Supreme Court. The report goes on to say that if an asylum seeker is denied entry based on the safe third country agreement, and if that individual is then “refouled” by the United States, Canada has committed indirect refoulement by refusing entry. The document goes on to raise the de facto U.S. practice of punitive measures for asylum seekers, who are then subject to human rights violations and not given adequate access to legal counsel. This amounts to a violation of the 1951 refugee convention.
As a result of all of this, it therefore is a violation of our own rights in sections 7 and 9 of the Canadian charter. To quote their document again:
||By returning asylum seekers coming from the United States to that country, the government of Canada is complicit and responsible for this mistreatment of refugees. Such action is in contravention of the Charter and therefore contrary to Canada’s constitutional obligations towards asylum seekers.
Based on the legal arguments that have been advanced by both of these reports, has your department undertaken a legal opinion with respect to this, and if so, will you make that public?