Welcome to meeting number 45 of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration.
Today we will be considering the supplementary estimates (B), 2022-23.
On behalf of the committee, I would like to welcome the Honourable Sean Fraser, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, and also the officials.
From IRCC, we are joined by Christiane Fox, deputy minister; Marian Campbell Jarvis, senior assistant deputy minister, strategic and program policy; Hughes St-Pierre, chief financial officer and assistant deputy minister, finance, security and administration; Daniel Mills, senior assistant deputy minister, operations; and Catherine Scott, assistant deputy minister, settlement and integration.
Welcome, Minister. Thank you for joining us today. You will have five minutes for your opening remarks. Then we will go into rounds of questions.
You can please begin.
Thank you, Madam Chair and esteemed colleagues.
I'd like to start by acknowledging that we are meeting today on the traditional and unceded territories of the Algonquin Anishinabe people.
I'm pleased to be joined here today by several officials from IRCC. Thank you for introducing them, Madam Chair.
I'm here to talk about the supplementary estimates (B), as well as the annual report and levels plan that was tabled on November 1. I'm happy to take questions on both of these matters today.
I appreciate the opportunity to be here today to discuss our government's plan for immigration to support the economy and our humanitarian commitments.
Canada is a destination of choice for those seeking to start a new life. We are a democracy that values freedom and human rights, with good job opportunities, strong communities and a high quality of life.
We need more people to fill job vacancies, create new businesses, tackle our demographic challenges and contribute to our health care and social security systems.
That is why our government has committed $1.6 billion to support processing and settlement of newcomers and implementation of our 2022‑2025 immigration levels plan.
This ambitious plan will see immigration levels increase to 465,000 new permanent residents in 2023 and grow to 500,000 by 2025. Bringing more people to Canada helps fill job vacancies in the short term and fill skills gaps in the long term. At the same time, we help our communities grow.
We must, however, look at immigration not only through an economic lens but a humanitarian one as well. Our plan supports our commitment to do our part to support some of the world's most vulnerable people.
In this regard, I am proud to report that we have now resettled more than 25,300 Afghan refugees and are more than halfway towards our goal of resettling at least 40,000. Of course, we're going to continue our support for Ukrainians who have found safe haven in Canada from the unprovoked war of aggression launched by Russia and the Putin regime.
To continue our commitment in 2022 and beyond, in supplementary estimates (B) we are seeking significant investments to support these newcomers as they permanently or temporarily transition to Canada and access language programs, schools, work opportunities, housing and health care.
By putting resources towards strengthening our immigration system we are improving processing capacity and adding technologies to reduce backlogs created by the pandemic, and to ultimately deliver a more effective immigration system in the years ahead.
Through significant investments, we've been modernizing our systems and expanding our workforce so we can help to reduce wait times, address the backlogs and return to service standards. As of October 31, we have transitioned to 100% digital intake for most permanent resident lines of business. We've implemented online tools for clients to access updates on their applications and are expanding them further next year.
To process more files, reduce wait times and reduce the inventory of applications, IRCC will have added up to 1,250 additional staff by the end of this fall.
These measures are going to help IRCC address unique challenges, including the backlogs that stem from the pandemic and back-to-back humanitarian crises in Afghanistan and Ukraine.
And it will help us come out on the other side of these challenges with a stronger, more responsive system to support immigration in the years ahead. We are already seeing some of the results of these enhancements.
While 2021 was a record year for immigration, 2022 is on track to surpass it for permanent residency admissions, with over 431,000 expected newcomers this year. This includes 105,000 sponsored family members, nearly 85,000 refugees, including protected persons, and those admitted on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.
We get countless stories, Madam Chair, of how newcomers have come to Canada and made it a better place. Dr. Malhotra, born in India, has delivered over 10,000 babies in Saskatchewan—many in first nations communities—earning her the name “Angel of the North”. Constable Mubiru of the RCMP is helping to build bridges between law enforcement and the African Nova Scotian community in my home province.
Let's not forget the Serbian and Iranian immigrants in British Columbia who are working to feed the homeless.
Immigrants—and those of us descendent of immigrants—have helped to make Canada a better country.
Once again, thank you for inviting me here today. I am now happy to take your questions.
We're starting to see the investments we've received so far pay off in significant ways. If you're interested in a fulsome answer, I can explain to you where the backlogs came from.
Long story short, since the end of July, we've seen a reduction in excess of 300,000 cases. This is the result of investments that we've made to add resources through additional staff, relaxing administrative requirements that have reduced the capacity on our department so we can focus on processing more cases, and adopting more technology.
We're seeing an enormous increase in productivity. Despite the fact that there are significantly more applications coming in, we are still outpacing that intake with greater output and have seen a reduction in the number of cases in the inventory in excess of 300,000.
These investments that we're seeking today through the supplementary estimates process will further improve the ability to continue to chip away at those cases. We're on track for major success.
Madam Chair, when I'm looking at the numbers, temporary resident visas took 13 days to process back in 2015. These are IRCC's numbers. Now it's up to 72 days as of April 2022. Study permits took 31 days, and now it's 88 days. Work permits took 42 days, and now it's 62.
I'm just wondering whether things are getting better and all of these investments are working. Since 2016, we've been pouring more and more resources into this department. With more people, more money, the backlog has increased.
It's not the pandemic, Minister. The backlog, prepandemic, was 1.8 million. It's over two million. Perhaps it is a little bit better in the last few months, but this is a lot of resources that we poured into this department. The numbers that I quoted to you go back all the way to 2015, and everything has gotten worse since then.
Why should the people who are waiting to come into the country to study here or to work here, or who are desperately trying to bring in that key worker to get their business started, believe you?
Thank you very much, Ms. Kayabaga, for the question. This is extremely important.
My view is that Canada needs more people for economic and demographic reasons. A lot of people, I think, see the 500,000 we intend to welcome as permanent residents in a couple of years as a really big number. But it's really important, to the point of your question, to recognize that a lot of people are already here and they're going to transition to permanent residency.
There are a number of different elements to the strategy to continue to welcome as permanent residents people who are already here. Last year, searching my memory, about 157,000 new permanent residents were already international students. The kinds of things we do to facilitate their transition to permanent residency include the extension of post-graduate work permits and the automatic extension for those who are facing potentially soon-to-be-expired post-graduate work permits.
We want to continue to open up the NOC codes for different occupations. We recently had an announcement that will enable 16 new professions to quality under the express entry system. We have a new tool we're going to deploy this coming year that will allow us to more nimbly target people in key shortages, including in sectors that have workers who are here temporarily to prevent them from leaving and making it worse.
There are other opportunities I want to explore that were outlined in the response we tabled to our colleague Randeep Sarai's private member's motion, motion 44, which include examining whether we should be doing targeted draws for people who are already here and continuing to look at the point system to see how it's going to satisfy people who have Canadian work experience.
There's not one silver bullet, but recognizing that people are using our temporary pathways as a stepping stone to permanent residency, and planning accordingly, is something we must do. Next on the list is to make good on my mandate letter commitments the has given to me to create a pathway to permanent residency for temporary foreign workers and international students.
When it comes to processing capacity for permanent residents, this is not something that has me concerned about our ability to deliver. This is not something that is a major problem that we need to overcome. We're already back to the service standard for permanent residency applications for family reunification and, as of this July, we are back to the service standard for the economic class through the federal express entry system as well. This is because we put a plan in place through the immigration levels plan each year that is accompanied by the appropriate resources to make sure that we can continue to grow our processing capacity to match the number of people whom we expect to welcome as new permanent residents.
We still need to do more work to more quickly process people who are coming through temporary streams. You mentioned some of the pandemic-related challenges. To put this into perspective, there were a couple of things that happened that put extra pressure on the system. The first is that a lot of our offices shut down as a result of local public health measures all over the world. The second is that we made a decision, when the border was closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 within Canadian communities, to welcome people as permanent residents who were already here as temporary residents, including through the TR to PR program that existed during the pandemic.
We kept accepting applications at that point in time for people who couldn't travel at that point in time, and this created a couple of years' worth of applications in the system at a time when our processing capacity had been reduced. Layer on top of that the response to Afghanistan and then Ukraine, and the fact that Canada became the world's top destination for people who wanted to move somewhere else in the world, and we have a lot happening right now in our department.
However, by putting the resources into the system to hire 1,250 new people this fall—we're at about 1,100 right now—and by relaxing some of the administrative requirements on the process, including relaxed medical examinations, moving to a digital space and leveraging new technology, including advanced analytics, we have significantly grown our processing capacity. I have all the faith in the world that we're going to be back to a serviceable and reliable processing standard time next year.
You have one minute left, so I will stop my answer there and focus on what you want to talk about.
Thank you very much, Madam Chair.
Thank you to the minister and his officials for coming to the committee.
My first question for the minister relates to the Hong Kong lifeboat scheme. Approximately 12,000 individuals have come to Canada and applied under that scheme, and 6,487 people were approved as of October 2021. Only 45 had permanent resident status approved by January 2022. According to research from Community Family Services of Ontario, 22% of the open work permit applicants graduated in 2016 or 2017, making them ineligible for PR under the scheme. By the time they complete their PR requirements, the degree, the limitation of five years will be over.
As the minister can see, there remain substantial barriers for Hong Kongers to access the open work permit scheme. It's set to expire on February 7, 2023. No replacement has yet been announced.
My question for the minister is this: Will he eliminate the five-year rule to make the lifeboat scheme actually workable for Hong Kongers? Second, will he extend the program?
The program you referred to has provided some unique benefits to allow people from Hong Kong to come to Canada. I have no reason to question the numbers you've cited. We wanted to make sure we had a program that we could implement. I think having some objective criteria on the timelines that we could work with to determine eligibility would have been important at the time. Of course, this was before my tenure in the position.
We have not made a decision to formally extend the program at this stage. I'd be happy to follow up with further conversations, if you wish.
I would point out as well that access to Canada for people from Hong Kong was made easy some years ago with the expansion of the eTA program to allow people to travel here more quickly. It's different from a permanent residency stream, I'll acknowledge.
To answer your question, I think there has been some real utility to the program, but we have not made a formal decision on what will happen after the expiry of the existing program.
I'd love to engage further with the minister on this, about the extension of the program but also the five-year rule. The current situation in Hong Kong has not actually improved. In fact, if anything, it has worsened. Consequently, a lot of these students, if they do not make PR here, will be sent back and will be faced with persecution. These are real issues. I'd love to work with the minister on that to see if we can find a path forward.
I want to bring another situation to the minister's attention. There's a group of 12 migrant workers, mostly women, in Niagara Falls who filed for a vulnerable workers open work permit on November 9. They're subject to harassment, racism and horrible things by the employer. According to the IRCC website, once the application is received, the worker will be contacted by IRCC within five business days. For this group of workers, it has been almost a month. There has been no contact from IRCC whatsoever.
Luckily, they are being housed by the union, by UFCW. This situation was brought to their attention. The union is paying for their accommodations so that they can actually be in a safe environment. The union is ready and willing to line them up with employment. They have good employers who are ready to hire them, but they need that open work permit.
Minister, I can put UFCW in contact with the officials to try to get this sorted out. I don't know why it has taken them more than a month when the standard is five days.
I would appreciate that very much. These workers want to work, and they should not be subject to abuse. They've been waiting and waiting. Time is not on their side.
With regard to delays in processing for TRVs and study permits, the government website indicates that the processing time is 12 weeks, and yet our office and my colleague's office have been experiencing extraordinary delays in processing TRV and study permit applications. This is especially the case for students or individuals from Africa and Iran.
One student from Iran had to wait for over a year. They are still on track to miss yet another semester next year for their study permit, and there has been no word. No matter how we've tried to phone the urgent case line and phone the inquiry line, zero information can be provided. I don't know how this can be. It's the same thing for African students. One student we are aware of has been waiting for seven months.
I don't know if there are internal issues, or if it's the systemic racism that's been exposed within IRCC with respect to the Pollara report, or what is going on. How is it that cases, particularly from Africa and Iran, are so severely delayed and off the mark from the processing standards? I'm not talking about individual cases. I'm talking about a class of people.
Speaking of massive increases in spending, for Afghanistan resettlement, previous budgets had $258 million. These estimates are adding another $195 million, for a total of $453 million, or just about half a billion dollars. For spending money, you get a check mark there.
Results, though, are another issue. I see on your website that 9,000 Afghans have come in under the special immigration measures, and 670 out of 5,000 interpreters' family members.
In the private sector, I was judged on outcomes. Here, we're spending nearly half a billion dollars, but a very small number of people have actually made it to Canada. Can you honestly, with a straight face, say that this program has been a success?
First of all, I echo the comments of my colleague Alexis Brunelle‑Duceppe: you have been generous enough to come to committee meetings on several occasions to share your ideas and answer our questions, Mr. Minister.
We know that more immigrants are choosing to live in large cities, while rural and northern communities continue to experience severe labour shortages.
The data shows that we are making good progress. We see that in recent years, our policies and investments have helped increase the number of immigrants settling in smaller communities. However, we need to do more.
Mr. Minister, are you able to tell us what's being done to attract and retain more newcomers in small and rural communities?
I come here often because I like the members on this committee.
Mr. El-Khoury, this is a personal question for me. One of the main reasons I wanted to get involved in politics is that I saw that social changes happening in the communities I represent in rural Nova Scotia were having a devastating impact that did not paint a pretty picture for the future of small-town, rural Canada.
I don't know that I've shared this with you before, but two of the hot issues during the 2015 election campaign in my own constituency involved the closure of the River John elementary school and the loss of the mental health unit at the Aberdeen Hospital, the largest regional hospital in northern Nova Scotia. The reason we had to see that school close was the depopulation of the small community. The reason we lost the mental health unit was the loss of a psychiatrist, and they couldn't safely operate it when a professional moved out of town.
One of the main things I hope to accomplish during my tenure, as long as I have the privilege of holding it, is to make sure that we share the benefits of immigration with every community, including small towns and rural communities. We have put a plan in place as part of this year's immigration levels plan to make sure that we can achieve that outcome.
You will probably notice that there is a significant increase in the regionalization of immigration numbers. There's a huge increase in the Atlantic immigration program where communities have the capacity to take more people. There's a significant increase in the provincial nominee programs where provinces can push people to communities that have the capacity to successfully settle them. This summer we increased and expanded the rural and northern immigration pilot program where we took feedback from the communities to better serve the interests of the communities that benefit from it. There are new flexibilities in the express entry system that allow us to do targeted draws, not just by region but also by the sector in which those regions have the highest labour market needs.
Every single day I ask myself what I can do to help small communities survive. Big cities will always be a magnet for newcomers. They are some of the coolest places to live anywhere in the world, with the most opportunities, but small towns are extraordinary places to live as well. Rural communities like the one I grew up in are extraordinary places as well, and to see that we've been able to put in place a plan that will help deliver more people to communities to make sure that our conversations are about growth, not schools and hospitals closing, is going to be one of the most important things I can imagine accomplishing in this job.
There are a couple of different things.
We must recognize that there's no perfect plan.
That said, it's crucial that the government consider options for increasing the number of newcomers. With their skills, these individuals contribute to our economy.
We must also continue to welcome vulnerable people who need a safe place to live.
What we try to do is examine the needs of the Canadian economy and determine how many people we can bring in who will be set up for success. It's not just for them to be brought here, but to be set up for success. Changing the rules to make sure that the people who are going to be chosen to come in for economic reasons meet, in a more tailored way, the needs of the Canadian economy is a big part of the path forward.
At the same time, we want to continue to be a world leader. One of the beautiful things about Canada is the multipartisan support for large immigration numbers.
I'll conclude on this, Madam Chair, because my time is up. We have settled more refugees than any country in the world in the last three years. This is a tradition that I think we should continue, regardless of who is in government, for many years to come.
Perhaps the minister can actually put that as a caveat on the IRCC website so that people know, because right now, for example, with respect to the processing of refugee travel documents and certificates of identity, there is no processing time timeline. People have no idea, even though they are desperately in need of trying to go back to visit loved ones.
I could go on with the lists, but I won't because I only have two minutes or something. Suffice it to say, that needs to be done. People need to know so that they can plan.
The other thing I want to bring to the minister's attention is this: For urgent processing, this is a real problem. The government indicates that urgent processing through the inquiry line will be dealt with within 48 hours. The reality is that it's anywhere between one week and 10 days, or more. I have multiple cases where people can't get urgent processing. By nature, the situation is urgent, but it's not being processed accordingly.
My question for the minister is this: Will he commit to ensuring that the urgent processing of cases is actually dealt with within the processing time of 48 hours?
There will be certain decisions that roll out as a result of the spending decisions as to how to allocate that $75 million. The purpose of making this investment was to grow our people-to-people ties in the region and diversify our interest for social and economic reasons to allow for more people to be coming from those regions to Canada and to speed up the processing times in particular.
There are four different locations that we will be focused on. You mentioned Chandigarh and Islamabad. As well, part of the same announcement was our spaces in Delhi and in Manilla. In addition to growing the potential workforce in those spaces, we will be adding a complement of staff to our global network to focus on applications coming from the Indo-Pacific region more broadly.
In addition, we plan to launch initiatives to boost recruitment through the international student program so we can continue to attract more people from the Indo-Pacific region who will come to Canada as international students, many of whom I expect will transition to permanent residency over time.
I think it's a wonderful thing for Canada, and I think it will reduce processing times in the region more broadly.
Absolutely, it's a priority for me and our government.
To show how much respect I have for the French language, I'm working hard to improve the quality of my French. In fact, I thank my parliamentary secretary , who is my French teacher. I also thank our colleague .
To ensure social cohesion in Canada, I need a plan to increase the number of newcomers in general. It's crucial that we increase the number of francophone newcomers to protect the demographic weight of francophones in Quebec and the rest of Canada. We must invest to help francophone newcomers establish themselves here. We need to open a new office in Dieppe to support innovation in francophone immigration. It's also very important that we increase the acceptance rate for francophone students from Africa.
There are many opportunities for Canada if we continue to increase the number of francophone newcomers. That's a good thing for those arriving in Canada, and it's an even better thing for our country.
This is really important. We've gotten the one-minute sign from the chair, so I'll try to be quick.
We made an announcement very recently to expand the express entry system to 16 new occupations, including occupations ranging from heavy equipment operators to chefs, aestheticians, occupations in trucking and transportation, and many others. What's really important in the labour shortage context that we're living through right now is that we expand opportunities for different sectors that have very high demand to continue to share in the benefits of immigration.
When I look at the transportation sector in particular, this is a sector that enables economic growth across the economy. They are screaming for people, as so many other sectors are right now. By opening up the opportunity to benefit from immigration, we're going to help sustain certain industries that will grow the economy as a whole. I think it's the right thing to do, and I'm going to continue to work with our colleagues at ESDC, provincial partners and stakeholders across the country to better understand how we can continue to expand access to immigration to help grow the economy.
Madam Chair, the department absolutely recognizes that, because of the backlog and because of the impact on people, the client service aspect of our work needs to be re-emphasized, and it needs to be prioritized. I can only imagine, putting myself in the shoes of people who are applying to come here either permanently or temporarily, what that means for them in terms of the unknown.
There has been and there continues to be an emphasis on what that client experience can be, and that includes looking at putting information on the website so people understand what the backlog looks like and what it means for them, looking at client trackers so they can have a better sense of where their application is in the mix and then what types of support services we can put in place in the department to be able to respond either to MPs or to individuals who call us for information about their cases.
We have groups dedicated to things like conferences or humanitarian and compassionate needs, and, very recently, we've been working with a lot of you on setting up an MP system where the department would make time available so that MPs can come to the department with a set time and set dedicated resources to be able to work through the very challenging files that you all have to work through.
These are some of the elements we're trying to use to be more responsive to what we're seeing. The reality is that, because the department faces the backlog that it faces now, people go through a number of different channels in order to try to get information on their cases. They call the client centre. They try to call their MPs. They may do an ATIP request. It creates even more volume. As a department, we have a responsibility to get through the backlog and then look at the service standards and determine whether they're the right service standards going forward and how we modernize our systems.
The minister spoke about digitization and electronic applications. These are ways in which we're going to be able to be less reliant on paper-based systems and be a bit more focused on how to process in a more efficient way using technology. That's not done overnight, and I think that's why there has been an FTE growth to manage the volume that we're facing, but we have to think about what a modern system looks like, and we are dedicated to doing that.
Thank you for the question.
Madam Chair, obviously, with the labour market shortage the country is facing right now, we have been extremely focused on economic immigration, but we also need to look at how we look at economic integration, where not everybody ends up in Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary. We have to think about what some of the regional programs are that have given us some success.
A good example of that, I would say, would be the Atlantic immigration program. I think I heard a stat when we were last in the Atlantic region, where some of the universities and businesses told us that for every 10 workers who exit the market, only seven enter. Programs designed to bring economic immigrants to those areas of the country are absolutely essential. The Atlantic immigration program was actually a pilot for five years or so, and then it matured into a full-grown program. How can we use those examples to look at rural and northern needs and how can we better match? I think that's an important lesson for us.
Most recently, in New Brunswick, we launched a pilot program with some of the big employers—Groupe Savoie, Cooke Aquaculture and Irving—to look at what their needs are in their region and how we, as a department, can work with them, the private sector and the province to actually bring workers to those communities that may not have the ability to sustain them from within their own populations. We have to be creative in that.
We also need to keep francophone immigration in mind in the context of our work. In the new year, we'll have the flexibility to be more creative about it, and that's going to be a great opportunity for us.
Thank you for your question.
We are always looking for ways to work with the provinces and territories to avoid duplication of the work you mentioned, particularly in the case of labour market impact assessments.
I believe that Employment and Social Development Canada has been flexible with respect to the temporary foreign worker program, working closely with Quebec. The department has made some changes, including extending the period of time a worker can stay with an organization. In some cases, the department has eliminated the 6% rate. The department has therefore taken steps to try to address the situation.
We've also worked with Quebec, particularly through the international mobility plus program, which aims to bring economic immigrants to Quebec. This program was intended for permanent residents, but by working with Quebec, we sought to bring people in more quickly on a temporary basis and then have them transition to permanent residency. That way, these immigrants can arrive sooner to work for businesses in Quebec.
I'm going to keep talking about the issue of temporary foreign workers. I don't know if you read the newspaper articles this morning. They say that employers are concerned about the delays. I imagine we get pretty much the same media review.
Canada and Quebec have an agreement on employment, the Canada-Québec Labour Market Agreement in Principle. Quebec knows its needs for its own territory, by region and by sector of activity. Why is the federal government asking employers for the same things over again when the provincial government already has the answers?
Why not just do away with the labour market impact assessments? It would not only speed up the immigration process, but it would also greatly reduce anxiety among employers and foreign workers, who are waiting to get their work permits to come here.
I understand that Employment and Social Development Canada has made some things easier, but this duplication makes no sense when we already have the answers in Quebec.
What are your thoughts on this?
Thank you, Madam Chair.
Thank you to the officials.
To follow up on the question around processing delays for African applicants, as well as those from Iran, could the officials provide the median and the average processing time for TRVs and PR applications, along with study permits for applicants from Africa and Iran for the last six years? That would be minus the two years of COVID, because I understand that things were at a standstill, but it's so that we have some baseline to compare it to.
Can I also get the officials to provide to the committee the turnaround time for PR applicants waiting for instructions to create...the PR portal or to have the photo uploaded so that they can get their COPR? We're seeing unbelievable delays. People are waiting for these steps so that they can move forward with their application. They're stuck there. They can't get on the portal to upload their photos and the stuff that they're supposed to upload to move things forward. What is the hang-up there? That's really what I'm trying to get at.
Also, on the issue around the newly announced 3,000 family member spots for the group of five in the Afghan privately sponsored stream, could the officials advise if those spots are fully subscribed? If so, when did they become full? If not, at what stage are they now?
I'll pause here. If you have answers, I'll take them. If not, I'll move on with my other questions.