For decades, Canada developed a reputation as one of the most welcoming countries in the world. Since 2008, this is sadly no longer true. It is now much harder to get into Canada, to stay here permanently, and to become a citizen. This is due to a steady stream of changes by the federal government that affect virtually all aspects of our immigration and refugee policy.
Many of the changes came without public discussion or debate with the minister of citizenship and immigration acquiring the power to make significant changes by issuing “ministerial instructions”, thereby bypassing the democratic parliamentary process.
Despite immigration remaining fairly constant at approximately 255,000 immigrants per year over the past 10 years, more people in the economic class have been selected, fewer in the family class and far fewer refugees. With a current population of just under 36M, Canada should be admitting 288,000 newcomers annually, just to maintain its historical rate of immigration. But in the year ending July 1, 2015, Canada admitted only 239,800 immigrants during the 12-month period, down from 267,900 the previous year. The shortfall, close to 30,000 immigrants, places Canada’s per capita rate of immigration at .66%, the lowest under the Harper government and far lower than the .8% that was predominant prior to 2006. This represents a huge loss in human capital benefit to our country.
In 2014, refugees represented less than 9 per cent of the immigration flow to Canada, while the economic class rose to nearly 70 per cent.
In January 2015, a new system was introduced called Express Entry for the management of economic immigrants. The mid-year report of the program, issued in July, indicates that 85 per cent of successful applicants were already living in Canada as temporary entrants. This confirms a move toward a “two-step” immigration system where individuals first come to Canada as temporary workers or international students and then try to make the transition to permanent residence.
The number of individuals holding temporary work permits and working in Canada more than doubled between 2005 and 2013. Yet many temporary workers, particularly those in lower skilled jobs, are ineligible to apply for permanent residence, while the rest are potentially competing with each other, international students, or individuals around the world for the approximately 78,000 spaces available to applicants under Express Entry. Under Harper’s watch, there is an increasing perception that Canada promotes an exploitive, revolving door system that readily disposes its foreign workers.
For those who manage to become permanent residents whether in one step or two, changes to the Citizenship Act have made it much harder for them to obtain Canadian citizenship. As a result, fewer can apply and succeed in becoming citizens, the true indicator of belonging and becoming part of this country. Applicants must now wait longer to qualify and cannot receive credit for time spent in Canada as students, or work permit holders as under previous rules. Older citizenship applicants face more difficult knowledge based language tests. Those who obtain citizenship may now be at risk of losing it due to policies in which dual citizens can have their Canadian citizenship taken away with greater ease and minimal oversight. Even persons born in Canada to parents holding dual nationality could, in certain circumstances, face revocation of their citizenship.
Recent changes have made it practically impossible for people in Canada to sponsor their parents or grandparents for permanent residence while children over 18 are no longer considered to be dependents who can be sponsored or accompany their parents to Canada. Sponsored spouses now enter Canada on a conditional basis for their first two years.
Perhaps the harshest changes since 2008 have been those aimed at refugees and refugee claimants, and in particular, legal reforms that deny due process to vulnerable asylum seekers under a discriminatory two-tier system based on nationality. These modifications are currently being challenged in Federal Court. The Conservatives also tried to eliminate the basic health care services refugees are entitled. The Federal Court struck down the government’s cuts to refugee health care describing it as “cruel and unusual” because it jeopardizes refugees’ health and shocks the conscience of Canadians.
Since mid-2013, Canada has settled less than 2500 Syrian refugees. In January, the conservatives announced we would welcome 13,000 Syrian refugees over a 3-year period, mostly through private sponsors. Yet our government has been near silent since then – until recently when it was forced to respond to this international humanitarian crisis. In contrast, Germany plans to admit as many as 800,000 asylum seekers this year alone, nearly 1% of its population. Sweden with a population almost four times smaller than Canada, took in more than 25,000 last year.
The Harper government’s pitiful refugee policies lay bare its punitive agenda against immigrants and refugees. Over the past 10 years, the federal government jailed more than 10,000 migrants per year, including hundreds of children as young as age 16, without charge. Canada is one of the only Western countries to have indefinite incarceration. A credible report finds these policy changes imply reduced access to justice for refugees for whom consequences of refugee protection decisions are frequently life or death matters. Even permanent residents are now subject to arrest, detention and could face deportation for even minor criminality such as driving while intoxicated traffic offences.
Canada has traditionally been a safe haven to oppressed minorities across the world, being home to thousands of refugees from Vietnam, Hungary, and Uganda, among other countries. In 1979 and 1980 Canada opened its doors to 50,000 Vietnamese boat people who were fleeing the Indochina refugee crisis. But this has all changed under the Conservative government, which to date, has seen its refugee acceptance rates decline by 30%. It has been very reluctant to admit refugees from Syria. When pressed recently on the matter of excessively long approval and processing delays, Prime Minister Stephen Harper asserted that national security background checks take long and the safety of Canadians is first and foremost. If Germany and Sweden can successfully orchestrate a much larger refugee program with similar safety and security concerns to guard against infiltration by terror groups, surely Canada could do likewise. It just needs a more compassionate government.
Immigration has been an important part of government agenda. It remains essential in most OECD countries, but especially in Canada, in part to offset demographic developments, including low fertility rates, an aging population, a growing elderly dependency ratio, a shrinking labour force and high out-migration rates. Immigration policy decisions affect how Canada is perceived in the world and will shape our nation for generations to come. It is important that the next party to ascend into power give priority to addressing these failures in order that we regain our tarnished reputation.
About the author:
Colin R. Singer is immigration counsel for www.immigration.ca and Managing Partner of Global Recruiters of Montreal. He is one of Canada’s foremost senior corporate immigration attorneys. Colin is internationally recognized as an experienced and recommended authority on Canadian immigration and foreign recruitment. In addition to being a licensed human resources professional, he is a licensed Canadian lawyer in good standing with the Quebec Law Society for more than 25 years and is authorized by the Canadian government in all immigration matters.