As the federal government set about retooling the country's immigration system this fall, it identified two important goals.
It wants, first, to admit a larger number of skilled workers, and second, to whittle down the seven-year backlog in its family-reunification program. This week, it added a third objective: protecting live-in caregivers from possible exploitation by the families they live with.
In a surprise move, the government announced that the waiting period for live-in caregivers to apply for an open work permit will now be shorter by 18 months. Open work permits allow caregivers to look for another job, in any field, once their two-year live-incaregiver contract is complete.
This is a timely and sensible change. The Live-In Caregiver Program has proven to be a resounding success as Canadian families struggle to find care for children and elderly parents. Parents who can't find child care can't work. The same is true of adult children with aging parents in need of care. Here in Quebec, we've read too many exposés of old age homes where the elderly are underfed and poorly cared for to want to depend exclusively on institutional care.
As welcome as this additional protection for live-in caregivers is, however, there are legitimate fears that this new third objective could leave Canada with a caregiver shortage - a concern given our rapidly aging population. Earlier this fall, the government said it would begin admitting no more than 8,000 to 9,000 live-in caregivers a year, down from the current 10,500 to 12,500. It would have been a good idea for the government to keep the numbers at their current level, at least for now, until we see the effects of open-work-permit liberalization. It may be we will need to increase the numbers in the future.
It bears remembering that when we talk about Canada being a country built on immigration, the builders have always included domestic workers. A century ago, Canada took in people willing to work as farmers, lumberjacks, railway builders, store-owners - but also people who worked in private homes.
This is not to say skilled workers should not be the cornerstone of the country's immigration program. They remain a good bet in terms of immigrants' ability to settle in and start contributing. Government research shows that skilled workers fare well, earning on average $79,200 three years after arriving. Last year, Canada granted 280,681 people permanent-resident status, of whom 67 per cent, or 188,056, were skilled workers and entrepreneurs.
In his enthusiasm for the skilled-worker and entrepreneur categories, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said he intends to cut back on the number of people Canada lets in through the family-reunification program. He is right to be embarrassed by the sevenyear waiting list in that program, with a backlog running into the hundreds of thousands. This leaves people waiting interminably in the often unrealistic hope of moving permanently to Canada.
In addition, Canadian taxpayers may not be convinced that opening the doors to the elderly parents or even grandparents of immigrants is a good investment. Elderly people who have not contributed to the country's health or social services will, if they are admitted, be able to draw on these services in the final years of their lives, possibly even competing with people who have paid for them.
But there are other choices when it comes to family reunification. Longer visitors' visas - five to 10 years in length and requiring the family to provide health insurance and social care - would leave families and their aged relatives with reasonable options and answer taxpayers' concerns. Currently the only options are a short visit or permanent residency.
In the global competition for top-level talent, being able to bring along families can prove a deciding factor for potential immigrants. And those families tend to have the same drive and energy that characterizes the main breadwinner. Canada did not get to be an economic powerhouse on the strength of its relatively small population. It has succeeded because it let in people who wanted to make a better life for themselves and their children - all kinds of people, the live-in caregiver and the telecommunications engineer alike.
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