I call to order meeting number eight of the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration.
Today we will be going through the main estimates for 2020-21 as well as the supplementary estimates (B) for 2020-21.
Appearing before us is the Honourable Marco Mendicino, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship. We also have officials from the Department of Citizenship and Immigration: Catrina Tapley, deputy minister; Marian Campbell Jarvis, assistant deputy minister, strategic and program policy; Daniel Mills, assistant deputy minister, operations; and Hughes St-Pierre, assistant deputy minister, chief financial officer and comptroller.
Before we begin, I have some health and safety reminders for everyone. I remind all attendees in the room to physically distance yourselves from others by at least two metres and to wear a mask unless you are seated and you are more than two metres from anyone else.
This is a hybrid meeting. Some members are appearing in person in the parliamentary precinct and others are appearing remotely. I remind all members to please speak at a pace slow enough for interpretation to keep up. The meeting is being webcast and is available on ParlVU.
We have the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship for the first hour....
Madame Martinez Ferrada, your hand is raised.
Thank you, Madam Chair and members of the committee.
Good afternoon, everyone.
I’m very pleased to be able to offer remarks on Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada's main estimates for 2020–21.
We convened during a year that has been unlike any other in living memory; 2020 will forever be etched in history as the year of COVID-19. This global pandemic has upended every dimension of life, and immigration is no exception. In fact, given that the movement of people across international borders is the sine qua non of immigration, one might easily conclude that few other portfolios within government have been more impacted by this dreadful virus.
Amid a second wave, the need for ongoing travel restrictions, quarantining, social distancing and reduced capacity in workspaces remains obvious. Cumulatively, there is no doubt these necessary measures, which are designed to protect Canadians, have had an effect on immigration.
Yet operationally we have made quantum leaps from where we were last spring to the present day. I want to be clear: This has been a challenging period, especially for the people and families who have been touched by the disruptions caused by COVID-19.
This past year has certainly been difficult for all of us. With worldwide border closures and travel restrictions, COVID-19 has significantly impacted our immigration system.
However, we've taken concrete action. We've kept immigration going despite the pandemic. We've continued to land economic immigrants, reunite families and resettle the most urgent refugee cases. We've prioritized work permits for those in the most crucial sectors, like health care workers, emergency service providers, and our farmers and food processors, to make sure our front lines have the reinforcements they need to keep us healthy and to keep food on our tables.
We've reunited thousands of families and loved ones by creating pathways at the borders. We've managed to do this by investing resources where they are needed most, by going more digital, and by streamlining our policies, all with the help of our hard-working public servants.
I'm very pleased to speak to you today regarding IRCC's 2020-21 Main Estimates, as well as our 2020-21 Supplementary Estimates (B).
For 2020-21, IRCC's main estimates include a total of $2.8 billon across all votes. Our supplementary estimates (B) include new funding of $324.7 million.
Measures were introduced to extend the stay of temporary residents who were unable to leave Canada because of travel restrictions. We also put in place facilitative measures to address the concerns of international students and the designated learning institutions that depend on them.
With regard to our top-line mandate, we have introduced innovative measures to continue landing permanent residents in Canada. In fact, our virtual landing process has actually reduced the time it typically takes to welcome a permanent resident. Those PRs who wish to sponsor their spouses will be pleased to know that we have stood up a special team to accelerate and prioritize the processing of up to 49,000 applications before the year's end. This, too, will help bring together more families.
While we are exhausting every effort domestically, it is also important to recall that IRCC has a significant operational footprint abroad, which has been impacted by the sovereign decision-making of the countries in which they are located. However, we are starting to see visa application centres reopen around the world as local restrictions allow.
Many visa application centres in key countries, like India and the United States, are beginning to reopen, including some just this week. The fact that our partners, both domestic and international, are resuming operations bodes well for continuing to make progress with regard to our processing times. For instance, in the week ending November 14, we issued 80% of final decisions compared to a similar period in 2019. Several streams exceeded production compared to last year, including the provincial nominee program, which was at 232% year over year, and protected persons, which was at 557%.
The pandemic has also spurred us to innovate when comes to citizenship. With all large public gatherings off the table for the foreseeable future, we've taken citizenship ceremonies online, welcoming new Canadians at thousands of virtual ceremonies. As of mid-October, IRCC had sworn in or affirmed over 43,000 new Canadian citizens in 8,800 ceremonies. We are also currently finalizing the development—
We are also currently finalizing the development of a new online platform that will allow us to safely and securely resume citizenship testing online. Finally, beginning January 1, 2021, citizenship applications for applicants aged 18 to 54 will be accepted electronically, which is a big step forward.
We have been efficient and nimble through this most challenging period, and these lessons will serve us well as we continue to welcome newcomers and to strengthen Canada through immigration. Many of the innovations created will have a lasting impact on our processing times. That is important because we have seen throughout our history that immigration is a driver of economic growth and job creation, and we know that it will continue to play a critical part in both our short-term economic recovery and our long-term prosperity. That is why our recently released immigration levels plan will gradually increase immigration over the next three years at a rate of about 1%.
As I am sure you are all aware, travel restrictions and other constraints led to a shortfall in admissions this year, which is why our increases over the next three will make up for it.
While Canada's immigration system has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, we remain committed to bringing newcomers to our country.
We continue to accept applications and are processing them as quickly as possible, and we know that we must continue to innovate and evolve our business in order to meet targets.
IRCC will continue to find unique solutions in response to the challenges presented by the pandemic and border restrictions.
Immigration speaks to who we were, who we are and who we hope to be. We're choosing to be open, vibrant and prosperous.
Thank you all very much for indulging with the technological difficulties. I would now welcome your questions.
Thank you for the question.
It's important to keep families and loved ones together, especially during difficult times. That's why we've launched a process for compassionate cases and for reuniting extended families and couples over the long term.
When this program was created, we set a 14-day service standard, and that standard hasn't changed. That's clear. We set up a working group specifically to handle requests and answer questions. Our dedicated public servants continue to process requests as quickly as possible.
Our government will continue to reunite families while protecting the health and safety of all Canadians.
Thank you very much, Madam Chair.
Thank you to the minister for coming to our committee.
I'm going to follow up on the question around dual intent. The ministerial enquiries division has confirmed that the information newly posted on the government website about dual intent is essentially an internal memo to provide clarification to assist in interpreting dual intent, but it is not considered an actual policy.
Will the minister consider suspending the use of paragraph 179(b) for sponsorship applicants applying for a TRV with dual intent, and will the minister consider issuing a special TRV, similar to that of a super visa for parents and grandparents, for spousal sponsorships?
Thank you, Minister. We have to move on. I'm really not getting an answer from you, unfortunately, for those students, but we'll try another question.
You clearly said a number of times when we met last week at the China committee that no one charged under the national security law or convicted of attending a peaceful protest would be barred from coming to Canada, which I think is very good. However, there's a lot of uncertainty there, and it's been discussed in The Globe and Mail and in other national news, the questions that remain therein.
I'm just wondering if your declaration sort of includes these pro-democracy activists. In particular, I'm thinking about Joshua Wong, who was 17 when he started the Umbrella Movement back in 2014. I'm sure you're aware that just recently he pleaded guilty to the charge of unlawful assembly, which, as you know, is also a crime in Canada. This was in a Hong Kong courtroom. He pleaded guilty and is facing five years in prison for a crime that's, again, also a crime in Canada.
I'm just wondering what your Hong Kong announcement is going to do for Joshua Wong. Does it include something for Joshua? Is there some way that we can help him? I mean, he's exactly the type of person that your announcement should have served, but I'm not clear that it will.
Thank you very much, Madam Chair.
My understanding is that it's been necessary during the pandemic to have some modernization of the department's system and that, in some ways, the pandemic has, on the one hand, shone a light on areas where more work is needed, and on the other, led government to revise or add to measures already under way to develop an update of the system, as large and as complex as it is.
What new processes and innovations to alleviate the strain on the system from COVID have brought about the most change that you've seen? What other methods are you considering to create a more efficient system, for this time and for the future?
I thank you for the question. It allows me to again highlight many of the lessons we've learned throughout COVID-19, including our ability and our capacity to leverage technology and innovation as a means of becoming a more efficient immigration system.
Of the two that readily come to mind, one is citizenship ceremonies, which we have moved to digital, and that in no way takes away from the uniqueness and special quality of that moment. One of the best functions I get to exercise as minister is welcoming aspiring Canadians to our family of citizenship. We look forward to moving online the part of the process that requires testing, in very short order.
The other is the process of landing permanent residents. Here in particular we have taken processes that have been conventionally done exclusively on paper and through in-person meetings, and we are beginning to transition those processes into digital and virtual space. As a result, I'm very confident that, going forward, we will be even more efficient than we were prior to COVID-19.
At the end of the day, Mr. Regan, I envision an immigration system that will continue to be lauded as one of the most efficient and most integrated immigration systems in the world, as the OECD has recognized.
I know that, but still, they've basically lost a year, which is a significant impact. Even if the government allows them to take three years to meet the 24-month work requirement, the impact is still there and is still felt. I'm saying they should not be penalized because of COVID. I urge the minister to consider counting that interrupted time and also freezing the age of the children so they don't age out.
On a different question, regarding the processing of PRs, one of my constituents urgently needs their PR card renewed so they can visit a dying mother, or in another case, a grandparent.
We found that the processing time is three weeks and that IRCC is now only opening packages from February 10. Even if they get their package opened, they would only consider urgent processing if the person has bought an urgent ticket, which is hugely problematic, on two fronts.
What can the minister do about this situation?
I think we will look at the talent and skill set within our borders and draw from a range of different skills. That will be very much part of the exercise of reaching the goals that have been set out in our immigration plan.
Certainly, the way I envision this exercise unfolding is looking at those parts of the economy and our workforce where we are in dire need. For example, in the health care sector, our doctors, our nurses, our pharmacists and our support workers have been working flat out to try to treat Canadians. I think we can take a look at that area to see whether or not we have workers, students and asylum seekers, as we have already done, and determine whether or not we can accelerate their pathway to being permanent residents.
I believe Canadians in those circumstances will broadly embrace that idea.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
I want to thank the minister and the officials for the hard work they do even during these pandemic situations.
Minister, I want to commend you for another thing, which is clearing the mess the Conservatives left, particularly if we look at the waiting times for the parents and grandparents class. It took almost seven years under the Conservatives and now it's come down to two years. On the spousal cases, it was taking more than two years and you brought it down to under one year. Not only that, Minister, but when I look at the number of applications your department accepted, it's four times more than what the Conservatives were accepting—5,000 versus 30,000 next year. This is a credit to you, Minister, on that.
Minister, I also want to echo Mr. Hallan's idea on the low-skilled occupations—not only trucks drivers, but also the front-line workers, tradespeople and many of the other trades. I would love to see you and your department find a way for these temporary workers to obtain a pathway to permanent residency, even though in 2019, 74,586 out of 340,000 permanent immigrants were temporary workers.
The other question I have for you, Minister, is this. Just last week, I had the opportunity to meet with members of the United Refugee Council Canada and heard their concerns on behalf of refugees who have been in Canada for many years. Many of them are working on the front lines—in food processing, the trucking industry and health care—and all those can also speak English and French very fluently.
I would like to see you find a path for them to become temporary workers, and then from the temporary worker status ultimately towards a path to permanent residency. Would you see if it can be done?
Thank you, Mr. Dhaliwal, and thank you for your advocacy as well.
As I said, we're at a very critical moment where we can look at many groups within Canada, as a result of the measures that we've had to take at the border throughout the pandemic, to see for those who are contributing to COVID-19 in the essential sectors whether or not there is a way to accelerate their pathway to becoming permanent residents. That includes workers, students and, as you pointed out, asylum seekers.
I know that your advocacy has been instrumental in putting forward some of these proposals. I look forward to working with you and all the members of the House on continuing to ensure that immigration will drive our economic recovery coming out of the pandemic, and our long-term prosperity.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
Thank you to the officials for being with us today.
I have a question about expired COPRs. All members of Parliament, I'm sure, are getting bombarded with this, as I am. I know that the NDP and the Bloc members have mentioned this as well. I want to know how this is working. My understanding is that they were permanent residents who were approved. They've sold their homes, sold their businesses, bought their plane tickets and were scheduled to come to the country, and then the borders closed. Now they've been stranded in their home countries since the borders closed in March and their COPRs have since expired.
My understanding is that what could be done is that the minister's office and the Department of Immigration could provide an authorization letter to those with expired COPRs. Is that correct?
If I may, Madam Chair, I will just back up slightly.
With many who have expired COPRs, these were issued before March 18. They are authorized to travel, but for many reasons, including conditions at home, they have chosen not to travel and not to come. Now their COPRs have expired and we are working to find a way to put them back into validity.
We've worked through two populations. We worked first through families who are in this situation, and now we're working through the economic class who find themselves in this situation, because we would very much like them to land.
Thank you, Deputy Minister.
I'm going to switch topics to adoption for my last few minutes. I'm sure you're very familiar with the Muth family and the Thiessen family, and a number of other families that were caught in the middle of this pandemic. They were stranded abroad when they were trying to adopt children in Africa.
What we've heard from these individuals is that they felt abandoned by their government. I know the Muth family was there. They just got home now. I believe they were there since December, so it was nearly a year. They hadn't heard anything for six months. They had to have a media campaign, email campaigns. It was the same with the Thiessens, who were not quite as badly off as the Muths, but at the same time did not hear anything for months.
Given what's happened with this pandemic, is your department planning to do a comprehensive review of how Canadian parents are treated when they go abroad to adopt children? We're hearing that couples in the Netherlands received documentation much more quickly, were in a very similar situation with border closures, and yet they were able to return to the Netherlands very quickly.
Are you considering a comprehensive review of how you treat adoptive parents?
Thank you, Madam Chair.
I'd like to thank the departmental officials for the long hours they work. Canadians are very proud of our immigration system.
We have heard from Collège Boréal and other francophone organizations that we are having difficulty in meeting immigration targets.
Are there things we can do, as a country, to increase francophone immigration targets for people from African or francophone countries around the world? What can we do, as a government, to ensure that more francophones settle throughout Canada?
Thank you for the question.
With the opportunity that the 401,000 target brings for us for next year, I think there are many things we can look at with respect to students in terms of pathways to permanent residence. We're analyzing those right now. However, I'll remind you that 25% of those economic immigrants who landed last year had been here as international students or had Canadian student experience, and I think that's really positive.
The other item, if may, Madam Chair, is the tremendous work we have done to try to make sure that students can continue to study in Canada and that their time continues to count to the post-graduation work permit. We work very closely with colleges and universities and with provinces and territories to find ways around this, so that we can maintain Canada as a destination of choice for international students.
Can you talk a bit about the process for the provincial nominee program? For example, in Ontario, there are roughly 6,700 positions or placements, but in northern Ontario, we get 50. We get very few from the provincial nominee program; thus, we set up the national pilot project for immigration in rural areas. I want to thank the officials for doing that quickly in the last year or so.
Can you comment on the provincial nominee program and some of the limitations we have on that, and then, with respect to the comments on rural immigration, how we can expand that program?
Madam Chair, thank you for that.
The provincial nominee programs continue to work really well. In this COVID time, where processing has been challenging—our border has closed—we are overprocessing, so to speak, around provincial nominee programs. I'm happy to see those numbers and to see how it's working. However, I believe that the member is correct. In many cases, the provincial nominee programs still create some problems with moving more immigrants and new Canadians out to rural communities and to smaller centres.
On the new pilot that we have in place, we are really pleased, and the first results are starting to come in now. We have a lot of experience with the Atlantic pilot. The first results under the rural and northern pilot are starting to come in, and they're very promising.
The next one to come will be the municipal nominee program. We've spent this period consulting and working with municipalities and PTs. I'm optimistic that we should be able to launch something soon, and to work with municipalities to have this up and running.
Thank you for the question.
The standard is 14 days. I am sorry for any confusion that has been relayed to you on the part of the call centre. We are pleased that we have the service standard back within the 14 days. I think it's 11 days and eight days, depending on which category we're looking at.
We have had to create a special program to do this. We've received about 50,000 email inquiries or email applications for family reunification. Not each of those represents a specific case, but each of them needs to be looked at and examined. For us, part of the problem—or part of the opportunity—that this provides is that a lot of them deal with U.S. clients, who typically are not clients who come into the global case management system. We've had to stand up something special to be able to do this.
We now have close to 100 decision-makers working on this. We have increased overtime considerably around this to make sure that those service standards stay within the time.
My next question is very specific. If, however, you don't have the answer now, I would very much appreciate a written answer in the future.
If I look at the statistics for 2019, I see that approximately 20,000 applications for permanent residence were processed per month in the economic class, which includes Quebec skilled workers. During the crisis, in April, the number of applications went from 20,000 to 1,000. Then, in May, the situation improved to almost 6,000 applications. In June, almost 10,000 applications were processed, but the number subsequently dropped to 2,000.
Why did the processing of skilled worker applications for permanent residence stopped?
Thank you for the question.
Actually, we have not stopped processing Quebec's applications. When we resumed our activities in May and June, we were ready to finalize a lot of decisions and files, because we were processing a lot of applications before the pandemic, as you mentioned. Many were therefore almost fully processed and we were able to complete them when we resumed our activities. That is why there was a significant increase at the beginning.
Subsequently, with the reintegration into the workplace during the summer and the amount of paper files, we had to reorganize our resources and limit the number of people who could be physically on site and there was a drop in productivity.
However, I can assure you that all files in Quebec are being processed at the pace that our capacity allows.
Thanks for the question.
I'll start domestically, in Canada. All our offices have resumed operations, but as you can imagine, it fluctuates up and down and we don't all have in-person capacity at the same level as pre-pandemic. For example, in Vancouver, we're at about 30% capacity of people working in the office. The rest have now been equipped to work from home and we're working through that.
We've resumed some of our in-person services, but just this week we've had to make some changes and adjust our protocols for those who have now moved within critical zones. For employees working in our Mississauga office or working in Calgary or Edmonton, we've now had to reduce our footprint for in-person offices that are—
I want to follow up on my question to the minister on the expired PR cards. He seemed not to understand my question.
My situation is that when people's expired PR cards are not being renewed and they are here in Canada, if they need to go visit loved ones who are dying and very ill, they are reluctant to leave the country, for obvious reasons. There seems not to be an ability to process these applications quickly. There's no urgent processing, because they can't get through the mailroom, and even if they do, my constituents have been told that they have to have a plane ticket in order to get their application expedited.
What can we do about that?
Thank you, Madam Chair.
My thanks to the officials from the department for joining us today.
I would like to congratulate you for all the work that you have been doing since the beginning of the pandemic. It must have been extremely demanding for IRCC's activities.
I have two quick questions.
The 2019 annual report shows the highest number of family reunifications ever recorded, at 91,311 people. Is it possible to send the committee members a record of family reunifications over the past five years? We would like to see how this has evolved over the past five years. That is my first question.
Second, I would like to come back to IRCC's operational challenge. You talked about digitizing and modernizing your operations. I would like to give you an opportunity to tell the committee members how important this is for the future.
I'd like to go back to the issue of the certificate of PR. The deputy said there's a system in place. Our experience so far is that whenever we phone about a case like this, we get contradictory information. Sometimes we're told to go through this process. Other times we're told to go through a different process.
This comes from the Toronto Star:
According to an immigration department spokesperson, 15,786 applicants who received their visas before March 19 have had their documents expire as of the end of October. About 2,700 principal applicants filled out the webform and more than 120 received authorization.
As you can see, this is indeed very labour-intensive. The person has to contact IRCC and sometimes go through several web forms before anybody responds to them in order to try to get their certificate of PR renewed and to get that authorization letter happening. What about giving yourselves a break and actually moving forward with a process of giving people a letter automatically? If they don't need it, they won't use it. It doesn't harm the system. That way, people can in fact get through quickly with the authorization so that they can come to Canada.
Is that being considered?
I'm sorry, but the time is up.
If there are any clarifications, Madame Deputy Minister, that you or your officials would like to provide, you can provide them to us after the meeting.
With that, our second panel comes to an end and we will have to vote on the main and supplementary estimates. I want to thank all our officials for appearing before the committee today. On behalf of all the members, I want to thank you for all the hard work that you have always been doing, but especially during this pandemic. I know you have been working very hard to make sure that you can serve the needs of all Canadians and those who are planning to come to Canada as new immigrants.
Thank you to all the officials.
We will now have to vote on the main estimates for 2020-21.
DEPARTMENT OF CITIZENSHIP AND IMMIGRATION
Vote 1—Operating expenditures..........1,053,523,784
Vote 5—Capital expenditures..........16,071,270
Vote 10—Grants and contributions..........1,553,909,417
(Votes 1, 5 and 10 agreed to on division)
IMMIGRATION AND REFUGEE BOARD
Vote 1—Program expenditures..........254,185,563
(Vote 1 agreed to on division)
Would the committee like me to report the votes on the main estimates and the supplementary estimates to the House?
Some hon. members: Agreed.
The Chair: Thank you, we will do that.
Now we will go to committee business.
As all the members know, the fiscal update will be on Monday, November 30, at 4 p.m. Our committee also happens at that time, so I wanted to have everyone's input on whether all of you want me to proceed with scheduling the meeting on November 30, or whether the members would like to attend the fiscal update and we should not have the meeting. Rescheduling that meeting would not be possible, because it doesn't seem that we have more spots available to reschedule the meeting at some other time.
Is there any discussion or any input from the members? I will go as the majority of the members wish.
No worries. Thank you very much, Madam Chair.
Just to offer my thoughts, I understand that on the one hand it would be good to be able to listen to the economic update, but on the other hand we also have a lot of work before the committee. If there's no way to reschedule the meeting, either by finding another date to replace this committee meeting or by adding hours to lengthen existing meetings to make up for this time, I would be very reluctant to cancel the meeting, just because we have so much work ahead of us.
Then of course, as Ms. Dancho indicated, witnesses have already been lined up, so I think that would be a challenge as well.
If there's no way to reschedule, then I would not want to see us cancel the meeting.
As it appears from the discussion, I think we will go ahead with our meeting on Monday. It is scheduled for 3:30. Are there any further comments?
Mr. Clerk, you can schedule the Monday meeting.
Thank you to all the members for understanding that and agreeing that we move ahead with Monday's meeting.
I apologize to you for any technical issues we had. I will work with the minister's office to make sure that the next time he appears we don't have these technical issues.
Thank you to all the members once again.
The meeting is adjourned.