5 suggestions to get Canada’s immigration system back on track

Toronto, Oct. 3, 2011 — Here we go again. The backlog of immigrant applicants to Canada has again ballooned to one million. It now seems like bringing the numbers down is an impossible task. Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Jason Kenney has made several valiant efforts over the years to adjust the entrance criteria, but the applications are still several hundred thousand more than can be processed. And, those who are approved, are still finding unexpected career and settlement challenges once they land.

So what’s the solution? In the past year I have travelled across Canada speaking to almost a thousand immigrants one on one in the GTA, Southwest Ontario and Metro Vancouver and I have heard from them firsthand their stories and challenges. The system needs correction and Minister Kenney has undertaken a democratic consultation process of meeting stakeholders to find out what is needed. I was at a roundtable meeting with him on July 20 in Toronto, where I shared some ideas.

As someone who has been closely watching this situation for over a decade as an immigration activist, here are five suggestions. None of them are easy. This is the bitter pill we must swallow in order to make Canada a country of choice for immigrants as well as allow us to select the cream of international talent.

1. Throw out all applications prior to one year ago and start afresh. Yes, refund the application fees to those on the waiting list. Immigrants have been waiting for their visas and are now coming in their late 50s. It is hard enough for a Canadian-born person to compete for a job in that age bracket, let alone a newcomer with additional language and credential recognition challenges. They are being set up to fail. New applications should be allowed under new specific rules, as follows.

2. Increase points for language and drop moderate, basic or no proficiency. Research reports coming in year after year show one thing. Immigrants with low level language skills are not making the cut. They are doomed to a lower than qualified subsistence level. Australia’s experiment with raising the language bar resulted in a 70% positive outcome for immigrants. This is NOT a popular move and will have several special interest groups protesting, but it is good for Canada. As things stand today, if you have a PhD and the requisite work experience with “moderate“ language skills in just one official language, you can still get in. In my experience, that will NOT translate into employment! We are creating a nation of literate illiterates — literate by virtue of their degrees, but illiterate on language skills. Fact is, we are not helping these immigrants by letting them into Canada when they are not going to be part of our economic growth. This will also reduce the flood of applications to only those with the right language tools to succeed.

3. Change the age range. At present, the age range for maximum points to enter Canada is 21-49. That range is too wide. Given the average five years it takes to come in, I see far too many immigrants who are in their mid-50s struggling to find suitable employment. Points for age should instead be broken into blocks of 10 years: applicants aged 21-31 receive 10 points. 32-42 get eight points, and so on. Younger immigrants learn the soft skills that they need in order to succeed faster.

4. Enhance the entrepreneurship category. What do Intel, Google, Sun Microsystems and eBay have in common? All were started by immigrants! The U.S. is finally getting it. Immigrant entrepreneurs have fuelled their economy for decades. At one time, 60% of patents registered in Silicon Valley came from immigrants! Even now, one-third of tech start-ups in Michigan are owned by immigrants. They have realized that post-911, with lower numbers of immigrants due to security reasons, their innovations dropped. They now have a think tank that reports to President Obama on building this back up.

A University of British Columbia professor gave Canada a failing grade when it came to encouraging immigrant entrepreneurs. As things stand today, entrepreneurship for immigrants is a default position when they are unable to find suitable employment commensurate with their education and experience. Open this up by allowing these entrepreneurs to access capital and loans from organizations like BDC (Business Development Bank of Canada) and EDC (Export Development Canada).

Also, let’s create a specific program that allows Canadian small business owners set to retire to specifically bring in immigrant entrepreneurs as part of a succession plan.

5. Improve provincial nominee programs to meet language requirements. This program has worked well in Manitoba and other Western provinces, but in a report from the Toronto Immigrant Employment Data Initiative (TIEDI) almost 16% of principal applicants spoke neither French nor English! Again, as mentioned, high language proficiency should be emphasized. Minister Kenney has said himself that immigrants aren’t making enough use of ESL instruction once in Canada. Having a country without a strong common language bond can have substantial social repercussions leading to proliferation of ethnic silos. Bringing in people through PNPs who can speak the language and hit the ground running is what provinces need.

As I said before, these are hard decisions, but we need to do what is best for the future of Canada. We also need to treat applicants with fairness and not waste their time as they wait years to come to Canada, only to face many challenges they are not prepared to deal with once they finally land. Most importantly, we need skilled immigrants in Canada who can speak the language, hit the ground running, bring innovation, create jobs and pay taxes! Period!

See speech delivered in Parliament on this topic.

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