New policies jeopardize Canada’s future, damage international reputation
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 oversight, 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 per cent, the lowest under the Harper government and far lower than the .8 per cent that was predominant prior to 2006.
This represents a huge loss in human capital benefit to our country. In January 2015, a new system was introduced called Express Entry for the management of economic immigrants. The mid-year report of the program 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 temporarily and then try to make the transition to permanent residence.
The number of individuals temporarily 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. The rest are competing with each other, international students, or individuals around the world for approximately 78,000 spaces available to applicants under Express Entry. Under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, there is a 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 theCitizenship Act make it much harder for them to obtain Canadian citizenship. Fewer will succeed in becoming citizens, the true indicator of becoming part of this country. Applicants must also wait longer to qualify and cannot receive credit for time spent in Canada as students, or work permit holders. Older applicants face more difficult knowledge-based language tests. Those who obtain citizenship may be at risk of losing it due to policies in which dual citizens, including those born in Canada, can have their Canadian citizenship taken away with greater ease and minimal oversight.
In the family class, recent changes make it practically impossible for people in Canada to sponsor their parents or grandparents for permanent residence. 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 are 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. The modifications are currently being challenged in Federal Court. The Conservatives even tried to eliminate the basic health care services to which refugees are entitled. The Federal Court struck down the government’s cuts to refugee health care, describing them as “cruel and unusual” because they jeopardize refugees’ health and shock the conscience of Canadians.
Since mid-2013, Canada has settled less than 2,500 Syrian refugees. In January, the government announced the country would welcome 13,000 Syrian refugees over a three-year period. Yet there has been near silence until recently, when forced to respond to the ongoing international humanitarian crisis. In contrast, Germany plans to admit as many as 800,000 asylum seekers this year alone. 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. In just under a decade, the federal government has jailed more than 10,000 migrants per year, including hundreds of children as young as age 16, without charge. Canada is one of only a few Western countries to have indefinite incarceration. Even permanent residents are now subject to arrest and 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, Canada opened its doors to 50,000 Vietnamese boat people fleeing the Indochina refugee crisis. But this has all changed under successive governments including the Conservative government, under which refugee acceptance rates have declined by 30 per cent. It has been very reluctant to admit refugees from Syria. When pressed recently on the matter of excessively long approval and processing delays, the Prime Minister 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 to power give priority to addressing these failures in order that we regain our tarnished reputation.
Colin Singer is immigration counsel for www.immigration.ca and managing partner of Global Recruiters Network of Montreal.