Discussion Points on Immigration Policy (June 2013)

Remarks to LPC(O) Golden Horseshoe Regional Meeting

Immigration is about citizenship. We are first and foremost welcoming future citizens. The goal of our immigration system must be to maximize the chances of successful integration for all new Canadians. Immigrants have always been crucial to building Canada and enriching both our economy and society, and immigration now accounts for all net labour force growth. It is an exciting time to be Canadian – we have enormous potential. Canadians from all corners of the world are building one of history’s most fascinating, diverse and cosmopolitan nations.

Unfortunately, Conservative immigration policies are designed, not to promote the national interest and the successful integration of new citizens, but to promote the short-term interest of the Conservative Party. Conservative immigration policies reflect the same arbitrariness, pettiness and short-sightedness so characteristic of the Harper government. From expanding the arbitrary powers of the Minister of Immigration, to abruptly cancelling all applications in the backlog pre-dating 2008, to encouraging huge numbers of temporary workers with no attachment to Canada, to a moratorium on family reunification, to federal-provincial tensions over settlement funding, Conservative immigration policies are marked by incoherence and a lack of evenhandedness that should concern all Canadians.

We need intelligent public debate to expose the shallowness of the Conservative agenda and convince Canadians that we can do better. This means an immigration system that is efficient and fair; a system that will help immigrants succeed as citizens; a system that will not be a dysfunctional nightmare of 50 different entry streams that produced at one point the backlog of a million applicants in a queue for 5 or 6 years.

It is time to undertake a serious and complete overhaul of the immigration and refugee protection system and take the time necessary to get it right. And this means substantial parliamentary debate to ensure that immigration reforms gain the confidence of Canadians and serve the long-term national interest.

Here are six areas where we need serious immigration reform.

First, successful immigrants come with a wide range of skills that are equally valuable to both our society and economy. So enough with the byzantine entry process that is more focused on a fickle business cycle, than on immigrants as future citizens. We need to streamline and accommodate the various provincial needs and employer demands within a coherent long-term national framework.

We can start with putting an end to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. This program entrenches the bizarre concept that Canada is prepared to expedite the entry of persons whose sole purpose is to work here without protections and develop absolutely no attachment to our country. This is absurd. All immigrants deserve equal protection and an equal chance at successful integration into Canada.

The current shortage of employees with certain skills is much better addressed by allowing market forces to push wages up and encouraging more people in Canada to train for those occupations, rather than the Conservative government’s clumsy intervention to suppress wages under the TFW program. What the federal government should be doing is urgently taking the lead and bringing together provincial governments, educational institutions and private sector players to coordinate the provision of extensive apprenticeship and training opportunities, as in Germany. This will benefit all Canadians including new Canadians.

Second, Canada needs an effective and efficient frontline immigration organization outside Canada. The Conservatives’ across-the-board budget cuts in immigration are unprincipled and make no sense from an economic management perspective. We need more, not fewer, immigration-processing centres outside Canada, and more, not fewer, competent front-line staff. And the front-line staff must have all the resources they need to complete security and identity checks, and to sort out issues of foreign credentials and work experience in an efficient manner.

We also need to create efficiencies in new ways to put a coherent Canadian face on our international efforts to promote immigration. Too often, provinces, employers and educational institutions engage in competitive initiatives outside Canada that are counterproductive and undermine the all-important Canadian brand, which is all that counts in our global village. Recently, this incoherence has been particularly obvious in our less-than-effective efforts to encourage foreign students to choose Canadian universities as their destination.

Third, we must establish, once and for all, expeditious certification mechanisms to recognize foreign credentials and work experience. It is unbelievable that we still have no workable procedures for the efficient recognition of foreign credentials and work experience. Apparently most prospective immigrants are still being told just to contact the relevant provincial authorities to initiate the necessary action to assess their credentials or experience. But absurdly the provincial authorities then tell them that they must be physically in Canada to pursue the assessment – something that is generally impossible.

Our long-term failure to establish a more effective process for foreign credentials recognition is directly related to our failure as a country to implement reciprocal recognition of credentials and work experience within Canada. The time is overdue for the federal government to lead a determined collective effort to finally create a Canadian economic union and remove the myriad of barriers to the mobility of people and businesses across provincial borders. And this will finally enable us to sort out and pre-clear foreign credentials very early in the immigration application process.

Fourth, Canada needs an effective and efficient organization within Canada to ensure successful integration of new Canadians. This means ensuring adequate settlement funding is available for all those essential services to help new Canadians maximize their potential – for example, language training, settlement assistance, and internship programs. Federal-provincial agreements on settlement funding need to be reviewed and recalibrated. Settlement funding has to be determined according to the particular needs of the immigrants – and this will vary considerably across provinces from time-to-time. A cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all formula is not useful, as Ontario knows all too well.

One particular issue that will have to be addressed sooner rather than later is the Canada-Quebec Accord of 1991 that guarantees Quebec a minimum proportion of national funds regardless of how many immigrants actually come to Quebec. Although, there are reasons to justify some inter-provincial variations in settlement funding, it is simply not possible to justify the current disparity between the federal support for an immigrant arriving in Montreal, versus one arriving in Toronto or Vancouver. The funding formula in the Canada-Quebec Accord is so rigid that even if no immigrants arrive in Quebec some year, the level of settlement funding will still increase. We really have to address this anomaly in order to establish equitable and effective settlement funding across the country.

Fifth, immigrants are much more likely to succeed as productive future citizens when we welcome their families as well. No one can dispute the importance of family support to an individual’s success in working and contributing to their community and country. We must ensure that family reunification is once again an integral component of the immigration process.

Sixth, the refugee protection component of our immigration system requires a similar reset and reform, but not in the direction that the Conservatives are taking us. From my perspective as a former member of the Immigration and Refugee Board for seven years, truly bogus or manifestly unfounded claims are made by only a small fraction of the refugees who arrive each year. Taking more efficient steps to identify these very few claimants, and ensuring that they do not stay in Canada undocumented and under the radar, does not require the sledgehammer of reforms introduced by Mr. Kenney.

Some of the Conservative refugee system reforms clearly offend basic democratic values and the rule of law, such as the expansion, without sufficient justification, of the arbitrary powers of the minister of immigration to nullify refugee claims, and the termination of essential basic health benefits to refugees. These measures must be reversed, together with the misguided decision to effectively cancel the humane and compassionate hearing that is triggered when a refugee claimant fails to meet the very strict requirements for establishing a risk of persecution in their country of origin. Instead we should combine the assessment of the humane and compassionate elements of a refugee claim with the main refugee hearing, and determine at one time whether the facts establish reasons to justify extending Canada’s protection to the claimant.

For more see http://deborahcoyne.ca/welcome-to-canada/.