Thank you very much.
I'd like to begin by thanking all committee members for the invitation to appear here today. It is a privilege, as my colleague said, to have the opportunity to speak to you today on this important subject.
As noted, I'm counsel with the Atlantic-Canadian firm McInnes Cooper, and my practice is focused almost exclusively on economic immigration, work permit applications, and permanent resident applications for professionals across many sectors, including health care and information technology. I also assist clients in making family class applications, including spousal sponsorships.
Prior to re-entering private practice in 2013, I served as the director of programs and corporate initiatives with the Nova Scotia Office of Immigration, and for these reasons I'll focus my comments primarily on issues related to the economic immigration programs, including the processing of the nominee program applications.
As noted, I'm here in my personal capacity as an immigration lawyer and not as a representative of the Canadian Bar Association or any other group.
Client service is such a large subject. I struggled to identify the key points I wanted to cover. I don't have a top 10. I don't think there's enough time. I have a top four, so I'll essentially ask you to take away these points from my comments.
The first is that IRCC deserves credit for improvements that have been made under this government and under the previous government.
Point number two is that applicants should be at the centre of all modernization efforts; three is that non-express entry applicants should not be left behind in the department's modernization efforts; and finally, lawyers should play a vital role in the immigration system, and this should be considered by IRCC as they continue their work in this area.
Before preparing my notes today, I had the opportunity to listen to the presentation by IRCC officials, including Robert Orr, which was made to you at your last meeting. I think it's important to give credit where credit is due, and to acknowledge that IRCC has implemented and promised further positive innovations. Mr. Orr and his colleagues touched on some positive changes in their comments, including the planned improvements to the call centre, both in terms of the scripts that staff are going to be instructed to use and in terms of the tone. In my view, this is desperately needed.
As many have, I've personally found it very difficult to navigate the call centre. On many occasions I've navigated myself into a dead end. Either I've been disconnected or I was sitting there with a dead phone, wondering how clients manage this. When I have gotten through to agents, they are often but not always somewhat abrupt and unhelpful. Clients have reported similar experiences. The improvements that Mr. Orr announced at your last meeting are overdue, in my view, but very welcome.
Express entry is another area where IRCC does deserve credit. Starting under the previous government, the introduction of express entry was, in my view, a dramatic and a positive change. Requiring upfront language tests and education credential assessments has required more work by applicants, but it results in more complete applications, which are ready for immediate and quick assessment.
In my own practice, I've seen express entry applications for permanent residents completed, from application to approval, in as little as six or seven weeks. This, in my view, is fantastic, and should be applauded. However, this fast processing is not seen across all application categories, and I'll come back to that in my comments.
My second point is that IRCC should continue to focus on humanizing the process for applicants. The system is truly faceless, and clients understand quickly that it is nearly impossible for them to get useful information on their applications from the IRCC call centre or website at this time. Perhaps this is now changing, and I greet Mr. Orr's comments on call centre improvement with cautious optimism.
I canvassed clients before my appearance today, and this is a quote from one client who is unhappy with IRCC service. This is the quote:
The current system has failed us on so many levels, the biggest three are: compassion, timely response and communication. Immigration is not a product, it is about people.
While this reflects a negative experience of that client, it is not the experience of all, but it is the experience of too many, in my view, and this must change.
My third and final points are more technical in nature.
The third is that the non-express entry streams and applicants should not be left behind in the modernization effort. In my practice, I am seeing dramatic differences between the processing of the express entry and the non-express entry applications. Specifically, I am speaking about Nova Scotia nominee program applications or other provincial nominee program applications.
As you may be aware, these applications continue to be made on paper to CIO Sydney and, in my experience, they are taking 15 to 18 months, on average, to process. You can see the inequity there, in that last week I had two applications approved and reaching finalization. One was filed in March of last year, I believe, and one was filed on October 13. It's hard to reconcile that in my mind. While it is possible to link the paper applications to Sydney to the online portal for lawyers, it certainly feels that this class of applications is no longer a processing priority for IRCC.
A related concern that I have on this area with respect to nominee programs is that innovation in provincial programs may be sacrificed to speed. IRCC has been pushing to align the provincial nominee programs more and more with IRCC policy, and this does risk a loss of innovation, in my view.
My fourth and final point is that modernizing the system and improving client service should not have the indirect result of making it more difficult for applicants to get needed advice and assistance from lawyers and consultants.
When I worked with the Nova Scotia Office of Immigration during the period from 2006 to 2013, we often took pains to emphasize to people that you don't need a lawyer or a consultant to complete your application. This was driven by a concern at that time about unscrupulous consultants and other—