Ottawa plans to unveil sweeping changes to immigration, starting today with an increase in the annual intake of new Canadians, and a promise to increase much-needed temporary workers and tackle the enormous backlog of 700,000 prospective immigrants.
Immigration Minister Joe Volpe, who will table his annual report to Parliament today, says Canada hopes to be taking in as many as 300,000 immigrants a year within five years, and will start by raising its target for next year to between 225,000 and 255,000. Canada is on track to accept 245,000 this year, the very high end of last year's target.
"We have to start thinking about the Immigration Department as a recruiting vehicle for Canada's demographic and labour market needs ..... we are the lungs of the country," said Mr. Volpe in an interview with The Globe and Mail. "We are producing more jobs than the labour market has workers for. ..... We're desperate for immigration."
He also pledged to tackle the backlog problem and introduce a system to expedite the processing of the more than 700,000 prospective immigrants who face waits of as long as 48 months to have their applications processed in Canadian missions around the world.
Under the current process, immigrants are selected on the basis of education, French-and English-language skills, and adaptability, a recruitment system that attracts mainly highly educated people who complain their professional credentials are not accepted in Canada. Many foreign doctors and engineers say they end up working as taxi drivers and waiters — a trend confirmed by Statistics Canada, which has found that recent immigrants earn less than their Canadian-born counterparts despite higher levels of education.
Mr. Volpe does not want to scrap this selection system, but he wants to bring in more workers on temporary visas (there are about 95,000 a year) to fill positions in the trades, such as pipe fitters and truck drivers.
He plans to consult with his provincial counterparts, unions, business and immigrant-serving groups to better understand exactly what kinds of workers are needed. He envisions an expanded local and provincial role in immigrant selection.
"Every provincial minister wants more immigrants. Today in Saskatoon, they need 5,000 more people to fill new jobs. But in order for us under the current system to bring in 5,000 people, we have to bring in 15,000 (their family members) and it will take three years," Mr. Volpe said. "So we have to think about a more flexible system, a way to get in professional people and skilled people."
Mr. Volpe is also planning to introduce a new "in-Canada" application that will allow temporary workers and students to apply for landed-immigrant status once they have worked here for a certain number of months, in much the same way that live-in caregivers can apply for permanent residency after two years working as nannies.
Another priority for the Immigration Department is to process applications more quickly.
"Under the current system, we make people wait months before we even open their application. We would like to open their applications more quickly, and get them started on the process," an immigration official said. Applicants who have been accepted on a provisional basis could start language training and credential recognition overseas, while awaiting their landed papers. The department also plans to hire more staff in either missions overseas or in a centralized processing centre in Canada.
Mr. Volpe is also in favour of introducing a limited amnesty plan and granting legal status to the thousands of workers who toil in the black-market economy, particularly in Ontario's construction sector. This initiative, however, is complicated because 11 other federal agencies must sign on, including the RCMP, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the Finance and Justice departments and Human Resources Skills Development Canada.
"You have to sell them a model that everybody can live with because there are consequences for all of them," said Mr. Volpe, adding that he "totally supports" a plan to regularize the status of undocumented workers, if they pass security and background checks. An estimated 200,000 undocumented workers live in Canada.
This year's annual report will show that Canada accepted 236,000 immigrants in 2004. Of those, 57 per cent are economic immigrants, and 43 per cent are in the family class, including refugees and others granted permanent residency on humanitarian grounds. Canada is on track to accept 245,000 immigrants in 2005 -- at the high end of its target and a signal of what's to come.
Would-be Canadians, take note. Lead story in today's Globe And Mail: