Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Jason Kenney responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, October 26, 2011. Kenney has plans to reshape and rejuvenate the Canadian workforce.Step one comes this week when he announces immigration targets for next year.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
OTTAWA - Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has never suffered from lack of ambition and his latest goal is nothing short of reshaping and rejuvenating the Canadian workforce.
He envisions a nimble, efficient immigration machine that will help solve Canada's demographic imbalance and boost the country's competitiveness simultaneously.
Step one comes this week when he announces immigration targets for next year.
Kenney says when he is done with his multiple reforms of the system, the flow of newcomers into Canada will be predominantly young, well educated, highly skilled, and fluent in English or French.
They'll be admitted to Canada within a year of applying.
And soon after, they'll start paying taxes because they will have lined up a job prior to arrival or should be able to find one quickly once they land.
"Where we want to be in a few years time is a flexible, just-in-time . . . system where we admit people within a year of their application," he said in an interview with The Canadian Press.
"Where people with pre-arranged job offers are given priority, because they succeed best. Where we continue to see a better geographic distribution of newcomers. And where we can more flexibly change the (acceptance) criteria based on developments in the labour market," he explained.
"That's where we want to go."
But getting there is no easy amble. His critics don't disagree with his goal, but they have qualms about how he will achieve it.
"It's like saying 'we want to have sun in January.' We all want that," NDP immigration critic Don Davies said in a telephone call from Vancouver. "He doesn't explain how. He sets the goals but he doesn't say how we'll get there."
Kenney foresees a multi-step process that will require changes to many different parts of Canada's creaky immigration machinery.
His department has already undertaken major studies of what kind of immigrant succeeds in Canada and what kind fails. Kenney has followed up with extensive consultations and polling to find out what mix of immigration the public is willing to take.
Now comes the action. Kenney is expected to table the annual report on immigration on Tuesday. As usual, it will include his decisions about how many immigrants Canada should accept in 2012, and what kind.
The report will give a range of operational targets for each type of immigrant, from foreign skilled workers to parents and grandparents.
The key number is the overall number of immigrants Canada wants to let in — and that number is clearly not going up despite pressure from the opposition.
Under the Conservative government, Canada has let in an average of 254,000 immigrants a year, which is high by historical standards.
While some immigration observers argue that Canada could solve its demographic imbalance, workplace shortages, family demands and backlog issues all at the same time by opening the doors to far more immigrants, Kenney rejects that idea.
"I don't think realistically we can increase the levels of immigration in orders of magnitude," he said.
"I think it's important for policy makers to listen to public opinion on immigration and not become disconnected from public opinion, which has arguably led to some of the problems in Western Europe."
Immigrant-related riots in a few European countries over the past three years have become the spectre of what immigration policy makers around the world aim to avoid.
Kenney understands the logic in calculations that show Canada would have to at least triple the number of immigrants it lets in every year if it wanted to bring down the average age of its population and resolve expected labour shortages over time.
But Canada can't absorb that many people, he said, nor would Canadians accept that kind of inflow. He points to polling last year done by Human Resources and Skills Development Canada. It shows 47 per cent of respondents say immigration levels are just right, and 34 per cent say they are too high.
"That, in my view, is in no way a reflection of anti-immigration sentiment, because new immigrants are disproportionately likely to say that," Kenney said.
"So this is just, I think, a sense that Canadians have that there's a practical limit to how many people can be successfully settled each year. The broad political consensus in Canada is pro-immigration, but the caveat on that is to make sure that we're able to successfully integrate and employ the people who arrive."
Once the levels of immigration are decided, Kenney will be turning his attention to getting rid of the enormous backlog of potential immigrants waiting in the queue to have their applications processed. There are about one million names on the list, many of whom have been waiting for years and years for word from Ottawa.
He has suggested capping the number of applications in some areas, perhaps starting with the parents and grandparents of permanent residents. That would cut down the backlog, make for a younger inflow, and reduce Canada's costs for social services.
Then, once the numbers are under control, Kenney wants to focus on shaping the quality of the various immigration streams.
Next spring, the minister wants to re-jig the point system that allows economic immigrants to qualify. Youth and high-quality education will be worth more, and the emphasis on English or French fluency is likely to be increased. Quantity of education will matter less, the minister says.
But this isn't the first time Kenney has tried to reform the stream of economic immigrants, points out Davies.
Kenney has given three major directives over the past few years to limit applications and put certain professions at the front of the queue. The fact that he's rehashing the system yet again is a sign that his previous attempts have failed, Davies says.
It's not enough for Kenney to simply be the "Energizer bunny" when it comes to shaping Canada's future workforce and diverse population, he adds.
"I don't think he knows what he's doing. I think he should slow down."
© The Canadian Press, 2011
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