Canadian Press
November 3, 2009

Joan Bryden

OTTAWA – Vaunted reforms to fast track skilled immigrants and quickly plug gaps in Canada’s labour force have not lived up to advance billing, says Auditor General Sheila Fraser.

When the Harper government introduced the controversial reforms in 2008, it argued they were necessary to eliminate the backlog of more than 600,000 skilled-worker applications and reduce wait times of up to seven years.

But in her latest report, Fraser says the changes have done little to cut the number of new applications pouring in or put a dent in the backlog.

“While it is too early to assess their full impact, the trends in the number of new applications received since the beginning of 2009 indicate they might not have the desired effect,” Fraser says.

Indeed, she questions why the reforms – which give the immigration minister controversial power to pick and choose which categories of skilled immigrants will be fast tracked or turned away – were implemented in the first place.

Immigration officials were unable to provide auditors with evidence of any analysis explaining why the number of admissible occupations was reduced to 38 from 351, how they figured that would reduce the number of new applications or what the potential impact and risks might be.

The measures “were implemented without sufficient analysis,” Fraser concludes.

At the time, opposition critics predicted the reforms would do little other than empower the minister to “cherry pick” favoured immigrants from the queue.

New Democrat immigration critic Olivia Chow said Fraser’s report proves the opposition was right

“We knew the changes to the Immigration Act last year were not going to work,” Chow said. “We said so. Almost every immigration lawyer or academic said that it is the wrong direction.”

In the year since the reforms went into effect, Fraser says the queue has shrunk by only 6.5 per cent and even that reduction was due to the fact the government refused to accept new applications for a period last year.

If the government doesn’t soon start to see better results, Fraser urges it to “react quickly and consider alternative strategies.”

“Failure to do so could result in the creation of a new inventory of applications . . . and the department would be unable to process new applications within the six to 12 months it has forecast.”

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney respectfully disagreed with Fraser’s conclusions. He maintained the reforms have resulted in new applications being processed in only six months and a 30-per-cent reduction in the backlog of applications received prior to the reforms.

“To go from a six-year wait to a six-month wait is a huge improvement,” he said.

Nevertheless, he “took note” of Fraser’s concerns and acknowledged that some “adjustments” might have to be made.

Although touted as a way to ensure labour market needs are met quickly, Fraser says the immigration department has no process or mechanism to ensure its list of in-demand occupations is up-to-date.

As part of the effort to streamline the process, the government set up a centralized intake office for skilled worker applications in Sydney, N.S. It was to receive and pre-screen initial applications, collect processing fees and forward eligible applications to Canadian missions abroad for more detailed processing.

Fraser questions the relevance of the centralized office given that most applications so far have wound up being forwarded to missions abroad for processing.

Moreover, she says the office has encountered “many problems in managing application fees” since it accepts payments in Canadian currency only.

“A number of applicants did not have access to Canadian funds in their countries. In addition, the (centralized intake office) was unable to reimburse applicants in eight countries where cheques issued by the Canadian government were not accepted.”

Fraser’s annual audit also looked at the temporary foreign worker program and found, as other studies have done before, that it is open to abuse.

There is no systematic assessment to ensure the jobs being offered are genuine or that employers live up to their commitments to provide adequate wages and accommodations, Fraser says.

“The issues . . . pose significant risks to the integrity of the program and could leave many foreign workers in a vulnerable position, particularly those who are physically or linguistically isolated from the general community or are unaware of their rights.”

Chow said Fraser’s conclusions show it’s “open season” on live-in caregivers and other temporary foreign workers.

However, Fraser acknowledged at a news conference that the government has already taken some steps to redress the problems, introducing reforms shortly after her audit was completed.

Kenney said the changes include more stringent monitoring of job offers and employment conditions and harsher penalties against employers who abuse either the system or their workers.

Despite the problems, he said the temporary worker program is “essential to keep our economy growing.”

“There are tens of thousands of employers who tell me that they would go out of business if they couldn’t find people to fill those jobs.”

Reference: The Canadian Press