The number of permanent resident visas issued by Citizenship and Immigration Canada between January and March fell from 84,083 in 2010 to 63,224 this year, according to figures obtained by the Star.
The latest department numbers show a decline across the board, with visas for skilled workers down 28 per cent, family-sponsored relatives down 14 per cent, and refugees dropping by 25 per cent.
The significant drop in visas comes on the eve of public consultations Immigration Minister Jason Kenney is holding on the country’s immigration levels and classes of people that should be allowed in. The first meeting was held in Calgary last week, and another is scheduled in Toronto Wednesday.
“It’s a very sharp decline,” said Myer Siemiatycki, professor of politics and public administration at Ryerson University, referring to the visas granted. “It begs the question: What is going on here?
“Has the government decided on the outset that they want fewer admissions? Is the tap being closed tighter?”
In the months leading up to the May 2 federal election, the Conservatives touted 2010 as a banner year in immigration, welcoming 280,000 permanent residents, the highest in 50 years. In 2009, approximately 265,000 immigrants were granted permanent status.
Commenting on this year’s quarterly figures, immigration officials say it is unfair to use the 2010 numbers as a benchmark since it was a record year in granting permanent visas.
“The department is confident that irrespective of lower visas/authorizations issuance and admissions in the first quarter, it will meet its annual target of visas,” immigration spokesperson Nancy Caron wrote in an email to the Star.
Over the last 15 years, Canada’s annual immigration levels have remained around 250,000, about 0.8 per cent of the population.
The Conservative government has announced it intends slashing $4 billion in annual spending from the federal budget, raising fears of further cuts to the immigration system. More than $50 million was slashed this year in settlement services.
“The success (of immigration) is determined by the resources. This government has been cutting resources and a number of provinces have,” said New Democrat immigration critic Don Davies.
“In turn, it is going to put pressure on the number of immigrants we can appropriately absorb.”
Immigration lawyers say fewer permanent visas could mean bigger backlogs, especially for family sponsorships where there is no cap on applications like there is for skilled workers and investors.
“The real problem with backlogs are the parents . . . The math says people will die before seeing a visa,” said immigration lawyer and analyst Richard Kurland. “That is the major challenge to Canada’s immigration system today.”
Immigration lawyer Mario Bellissimo said he would not be surprised if the minister brings in a new law to cap family sponsorship applications. Since 2006, the number of visas for sponsored relatives and refugees has declined, while visas for workers have steadily increased.
“The (immigration) minister has the authority to decide who can come to Canada,” he said. “If we get more applications than we can process, we’re going to return them.”
Since 2008, the federal government has made numerous changes to its immigration program in an effort to eliminate backlogs and process applications in a more timely fashion. It counts on capping the number of immigration applications it accepts for processing.
A department backgrounder for the upcoming consultations, which are by invitation only, suggests while increasing immigration may be one way to solve the growing demand, “there are clearly a number of pressures that make trade-offs inevitable.”
With an aging population, “immigration levels will need to be raised to 350,000 annually to support Canada’s economic growth,” said Anne Golden, president and CEO of the Conference Board of Canada.
Ernst & Young business immigration lawyer Batia Stein said the biggest percentage drop in early 2011 comes in the federal skilled worker and Canada experience programs, which are designed to usher in immigrants most likely to succeed in the job market.
“If our goal is to attract global talent and combat our aging population, there’s some room there to do that,” she said.
Ryerson’s Siemiatycki said Canada has a capacity to take in as many as 450,000 immigrants a year by including the 200,000 temporary foreign workers that it lets in to fill labour market needs on a perennial basis.
According to the government’s consultation backgrounder, Canada would have to increase immigration to nearly 4 per cent of the population to stabilize its “old-age dependency ratio.”