Q: What are the most important changes to Canada's immigration program?
The Prime Minister gave an indication at his speech in Davos. We are re-focusing immigration reforms on Canada’s labour market.
We are embarking on a program of transformational change to move from a slow, rigid and passive, really a supply-driven immigration system, to a fast, flexible and pro-active, demand-driven immigration system.
One of the most important reforms is the massive expansion of the provincial nominee programs which has resulted in a better geographic distribution of immigrants across Canada.
The number of immigrant going to Manitoba has tripled; to Saskatchewan has quadrupled; to Alberta and Atlantic Canada has doubled.
This is all good news.
Q: What about the long-standing problem of immigrants' un- and under-employment?
We are starting to see signs of improvement in the economic outcomes of more recent immigrants, those coming through the provincial nominee program because they typically have jobs lined up. More recent arrivals under the skilled worker program are also doing better, especially those with pre-arranged employment.
Q: What other reforms are important?
We have high unemployment in an economy with large labour shortages. And this, frankly, frustrates the hell out of me - that we're bringing hundreds of thousands of people into the country to face many of them end up un- or underemployed in an economy where there are acute labour shortages.
Q: How do we resolve this paradox?
We need to get better results for newcomers and get better results for immigration. This is the most important public policy question of our time.
We need to deal decisively with the legacy backlogs. We took action starting in 2009, and reduced the backlog in half.
But we must do more or we’ll just be carrying forward the backlog for years. We won't be able to get to a situation where we can bring in people with pre-arranged jobs in a matter of months which is what you need if you want an immigration system that is responsive to the labour market.
We’re bringing forth amendments to the immigration act to return about 100,000 applications involving about 300,000 individuals, application which have been in the system from 2001-2008. We’ll return the application fees.
This will allow us to move to a just-in-time system, a working inventory in our skilled worker system, where in about 18 months, so by 2014, we will be admitting people who apply within months.
Q: Why is that important?
That speed will be critically important so we can then go to employers and say, look at the global labour market and actively recruit people from abroad who can work at their skill level.
We are going to create a pool of qualified immigrant applicants who have given us permission to share their applications and then the employers can go into that pool and essentially we will run queries for them to pull out.
We will do a revision of our points selection grid to put more emphasis on younger people with Canadian, as opposed to overseas, experience. We will give priority to those with pre-arranged employment offers in Canada.
We will raise the language benchmarks for those who want to work in higher-end occupations but we also want to introduce more flexibility to create a skilled trades scheme because we have a skilled trades shortage.
Finally and I think one of the most exciting reforms we're looking at doing is a re-assessment of how we assess education and qualifications, again emulating the Aussies and New Zealanders.
Q: Yes, immigrants have long complained about the difficulty in getting recognition for their overseas credentials.
Part of that is, yes, the result of gate keeping on the part of licensed professions and part of it is some of the foreign professionals we bring to Canada lack our standards. We owe them truth in advertising. We owe them an honest assessment of their chances of licensure upon arrival in Canada.
We will identify organizations that have expertise in assessing foreign education.
And in a couple of years we hope to bring in a similar form of pre-assessment of professional credentials working with the national bodies that represent the 45 regulated professions.
We will do a pre-assessment of whether an application has a better than average chance of getting a license as an engineer in Canada.
The whole concept here is to stop the madness of just dropping immigrants into our labour market to sink or swim even if they really don’t have a reasonable shot at getting their license.
It’s a waste of human capital. It’s an opportunity cost for our economy. By creating a better qualified pool of prospective immigrants who are going to have much higher rates of success in getting their licenses, they will all do much better.
Q: Any other changes?
We will also be re-designing our investor immigration program. We believe that the program is massively underselling Canada because it’s based on only an $800,000 loan for five years which people get back minus the commissions.
There are millions of millionaires interested in immigrating to Canada. The bar must be higher.
Canadian experience class is the most important thing we’ve done in immigration reform to date. We’re going to be making that a little more flexible because for me it's the model program. These young people are pre-integrated.
I really do believe that when we look back on the consequence of these changes five years from now. I am absolutely confident we’ll see as a result of these changes a marked improvement in the economic outcome of immigrants and that we're doing a massively better job of linking that to the labour shortages.
Q: is there any discussion of taking multilateral approach to credential recognition?
Yes, but we can’t trigger that because it's provincial jurisdiction. Now some provinces and some of their licensing bodies are doing that. Quebec signed an agreement with France to move towards mutual recognition of credentials.
Manitoba and Saskatchewan have gone to some of the better nurses colleges in the Philippines and they’ve added supplementary courses to train nurses up to the provincial standards so when they write their tests in Manila they know they are qualified to get their licenses as an RN in Manitoba or Saskatchewan.
It is massively complex: 45 professions times 10 provinces so there’s no simple solution.
Q: Do you anticipate a lawsuit by immigration lawyers regarding the backlog changes?
We've obviously done very careful legal analysis. We are confident what were doing is lawful and can withstand any legal challenge.
I don’t think we understood the nature of the problem when we came to government. I think we were overwhelmed when we opened up the filing drawer at immigration and found 850,000 applications in there in 2006.
Q: What about the citizenship ceremony and banning the niqab? What is behind that?
The citizenship oath is supposed to be taken seriously. That's our expectation. We were not able to verify that people are saying it when their faces are covered.
For me, it’s also about the nature of an oath. It’s a public licensing, a declaration of your membership in the community and you do that in front of your fellow citizens in public. To obscure yourself at that essentially public moment when you’re making a legal undertaking in front of your fellow citizens undermines the nature of the public oath.
Q: What has been the reaction?
I think what we did has been broadly accepted. I’ve been surprised at the number of Muslims who’ve come up to me and commended us for the decision.
It also sends another message which is yes, this is a liberal democracy though of course we have no interest in regulating what you wear.
I am a critic of the French approach which seeks to regulate people's habillements in their lives in the public space but at moments like this when there an interaction between an individual and the state, it’s not unreasonable to ask people to show who you are. Polls show 85% of people agree with this.
Q: Aren’t they just practising their religion? Did you consider the possibility they could be accommodated?
We could put them in a separate room with a woman officer and that’s segregation.
Q: Is that really segregation or separation?
I think it comes back to the essentially public nature of the citizenship ceremony and the oath. There’s a reason we do these things in groups we don’t just swear people in privately in an office.
No one is obliged to take the citizenship oath. If they feel stronger about hiding their faces, they don’t have to take the oath.
In our citizenship guide, we talk about Canadian multiculturalism and the fact it doesn’t extend to forced marriage, female genital mutilation, etc. We are sending a signal that certain barbaric practises are not welcome in Canada. There are certain legal limits and cultural norms about women in Canadian society.
Q: Is this the French approach?
No. I’m a big champion of a broad-minded approach to pluralism. One of the reasons the Canadian experience has been successful on integration and diversity is because we adapted an organic approach to accommodating differences. But we shouldn’t be shy in emphasizing core liberal values. If people choose to wear the niqab, that’s their business. But I hope that little girls who grow up in Canada don’t think it is an obligation.
Q: Are you contemplating removing the Mexican visa any time soon?
We did this in June, 2009. We should have done it in 2007 but we held back because of the special relationship with Mexico. We regret it has been frustrating and there has been a decline in tourism.
The new refugee system that we anticipate will be put in place this fall, we need to assess how effective it is. At some point after that, we will go back and re-consider the visa exemption.
We have to make sure the system is working probably. We could take a look at it in 2013.
Q: Which countries does Canada compete with to attract the best and brightest immigrants?
Australia and New Zealand are our competition. If you’re the top graduate from IIT in Hyderabad and Australia takes you in six months and we say take a number, and we’ll get back to you in eight years, then obviously they won't come to Canada.
The rigidity and slowness of our system has meant we cannot move people through the system fast enough.