Canada’s Conservative party was elected to power with a modest minority government in the elections held on January 23, 2006, ending 12 years of Liberal party rule in Canada. It is now time to assess what effect this will have on future Canadian immigration policy. Under the current distribution of seats, the Conservatives must clearly negotiate its political agenda with Canada’s three other parties of consequence, the Liberals, the separatist Bloc Quebecois and the New Democratic Party, just as the previous government under the Liberals were forced to do when it was re-elected with a minority in the elections of June 2004.
The current version of the Conservative party founded and led by Stephen Harper, is the product of a merger in December 2003 between the former pro western Canadian Alliance and the former Progressive Conservative Party of Canada, which swept to power in Canada under the infamous Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in 1984, before imploding in 1993.
It is said that Stephen Harper is quite fond of the leanings of the former Prime Minister Mulroney. During the Mulroney years, immigration levels to Canada steadily and dramatically increased in each of the party’s 8 years of power to the point, that in its last full year of political power in 1992, Canada admitted 252,842 newcomers under all categories. This figure is quite comparable to the numbers of admissions under the Liberals in each of its 12 years of power during the period 1993 – 2005.
In fact, annual admissions to Canada have consistently exceeded the 200,000 threshold since the early 1990’s as Canadian immigration policy has closely followed that of other OECD countries, configured in part to combat a number of demographic developments including, an aging population, a growing elderly dependency ratio, a shrinking labour force and the ongoing dilemma in Canada of brain drain.
There is no reason to believe that annual immigration levels in Canada will be reduced under a Harper run government. The question is, can we expect a substantial increase in the numbers of admissions to Canada over current levels under the Conservatives, as the Liberals have been promising since 1993? This is unlikely until our infrastructure and capacity to absorb newcomers is improved. But other areas appear to be attracting attention.
One area that continues to cause continued controversy amongst immigrants to Canada and which the Conservatives promise to address, is the difficulty newcomers incur in having their credentials recognized by Canadian employers. It is common knowledge that many professionals and trades persons continue to face barriers, – largely imposed by the provincially administered professional bodies and trades councils, in receiving permission to work in their occupations in Canada. The conundrum is that on the one hand current immigration selection rules favour individuals with education and work experience while on the other, newcomers often face insurmountable hurdles to have their foreign credentials recognized to become employed in their vocation.
Moreover, numerous studies show that many immigrants in Canada can initially face prolonged periods of an under-utilization of their skills and suffer pay inequities for carrying out the same work as native born Canadians.
The Conservatives pledged to address this problem by introducing an agency to accredit foreign qualifications. But this proposed solution, on its face, is far too simplistic and completely ignores the reality that the right to work in the provinces falls entirely under provincial jurisdiction. Unless agreement is reached with the provincially administered professional associations – and there are at least ten times more professional associations in Canada (each with a mandate to uphold barriers to entry) than all the provinces put together, this pledge will have no meaningful effect.
Practitioners agree that change in this area is essential for the continued success of Canada’s immigration policy. As with most complex scenarios however, change of this nature can take a long time and will likely take hold only out of necessity. Perhaps we can only expect to see a gradual change in philosophy from within the trades’ councils and the professions, when there are no pediatricians and family physicians, no bookkeepers, no plumbers, electricians, welders or skilled trades’ persons in many other occupations within a continually expanding geographical area. This is what is already taking place.
Perhaps as membership within the various professional bodies begins to fall, or revenues to sustain their operating budgets becomes untenable, the rigid philosophy that currently prevails amongst these regulatory circles, will gradually lead to change.
An area that is guaranteed to stir controversy is the stated plan by Harper to introduce new debate in Canada’s Parliament over gay marriage. The issue of same sex marriages underwent an important development in Canada following the proclamation of the federal Civil Marriages Act last year. This legislation flows from a landmark December 2004 Supreme Court of Canada ruling upholding Parliament’s authority to legislate in this area. It extends the legal capacity for marriage to same sex couples in Canada.
This has also had widespread effect in many areas in Canada including the field of immigration. Canadian immigration rules, under a complex formula, now recognize the rights of same sex couples as a member of the family class or as an accompanying family member under the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Protection Act who have married in Canada. It is no wonder therefore, that many same-sex couples have been rushing to formalize their matrimonial status in anticipation of a new change in government.
The Conservatives have promised to embark on a tough stand in favour of strengthening Canada’s security provisions in a number of areas. In addition to modifications to mandatory sentencing legislation, gun control and tougher provisions at Canada’s border crossings, we can also expect to see increased budgetary allocations to enforce deportations of unwanted immigrants.
The Conservatives have also pledged to eliminate the $975 charge on new immigrants, which the Liberals introduced in the late 1990’s.
Few will object to the latter two initiatives. But it is hoped that in addition to this initial agenda, the new government will be open to resolving a number of pending issues that have been carried forward from the previous government. This includes among others, addressing the long delays stemming from a lack of resources which continue to persist in areas such as Family Class sponsorship cases and skilled worker applications.