The government is considering all options for clearing a backlog of hundreds of thousands of applications from people who want to immigrate to Canada, Jason Kenney said Wednesday.
Kenney, the minister of citizenship and immigration, wouldn't rule out an option used in New Zealand, where the government legislated away the backlog — clearing it by eliminating the files.
Asked how seriously he's looking at that option, Kenney said the department is looking at all options for dealing with the backlog.
"We owe it to newcomers to do that. So we haven’t made any decisions, we’re still consulting, we’re looking at all the options, but I do think that we can’t continue to tell people that they’re going to wait for eight years for a decision on whether they can come to Canada," he said.
Canada's backlog is around 300,000 applications and could take until 2017 to clear.
That's unfair to the applicants and inefficient for employers looking to fill gaps for skilled labour, Kenney said, since after five or six years people's skills may be outdated for what the market requires. Canada's immigration system must function faster and be more responsive to changing needs, he said.
Kenney has already made major changes to the refugee and family reunification systems, in both cases offering compromises on some issues while taking a hard line overall. For example, last fall the department temporarily stopped taking new applications for family reunification but started offering a super visa, valid for 10 years, that allows visitors to stay longer than before.
Although he floated the idea of eliminating old files to kill the backlog, Kenney also offered the option of letting provincial and territorial governments go through current applications and pull out the ones that match their needs with what the applicants seek.
"We are launching a pilot project that will allow provinces and territories to 'mine the backlog' — in other words, to review the applications in the backlog and nominate those applicants they think their economies need now. We are also informing some applicants stuck in the federal skilled workers backlog about possible opportunities under the provincial nominee program," he said.
The provincial nominee program lets the provinces select and recommend immigrants to fill sectors where they're most needed. The federal government then processes the applications.
Using immigration to help the economy
Critics have accused the government of focusing Canada's immigration system too narrowly on economic factors and limiting the opportunities to, for example, bring in aging relatives.
Kenney says statistics show highly skilled people with prearranged jobs do well when they come to Canada, earning an average annual salary of $79,000.
"What we are going to be encouraging prospective immigrants to do more and more is try to get a job lined up before they get to Canada. And that will allow us to help bring them in very quickly in the future. So the doors are always going to be open," he said.
The government has talked in the past about how Canada will have to rely on immigration to supplement an aging workforce.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in a January speech in Davos, Switzerland, that Canada is looking at ways to modernize its immigration system.