Immigration changes proposed

Immigration Minister discusses targetting specific occupations

Changes to Canada’s immigration program are in the works as Citizenship and Immigration Canada staff look at ways to target people in high demand occupations, improve retention of immigrants in smaller centres — and possibly bring up immigration levels to 300,000 a year.

Stephen Heckbert, spokes-person for Immigration Minister Joe Volpe, said he couldn’t confirm media reports that there are plans to bring in 300,000 immigrants a year within five years. Current levels of immigration have hovered between 210,000 and 250,000 in the last five years.

Heckbert said only that the minister has made a proposal to the cabinet outlining “an overarching vision” that includes improving the system in four ways. One is improving the processing of applications. The second is improving the spread of immigrants outside Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, where the majority of immigrants settle.

A third set of needed changes relate to the system’s ability to respond to specific market demands for certain occupations. The fourth set of possible changes relates to better retention of foreigners already in Canada, either as foreign students or temporary foreign workers. Heckbert pointed to recent changes that grant visa students a two-year work permit if they work outside Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver as examples of programs already introduced to improve the system.

“The challenge is the current system is not really designed to help to respond to individual market challenges in the way it once was,” said Heckbert, who firmly denied that this would require any changes to the current points-based selection system.

“It’s about ensuring that there’s a mechanism to identify needs in the system so that we can match the labour market needs with skills that new Canadians might bring,” said Heckbert.

Howard Greenberg, an immigration lawyer at Greenberg Turner and one of the advisors on the changes, said the country’s new approach to immigration would entail a “fundamentally different way of looking at immigration.”

If there’s a mismatch between today’s supply of immigrant labour and market demands, to a large extent this mismatch is due to employers’ requirement for Canadian work experience and skill levels that meet Canadian licensing and professional standards, said Greenberg.

Ideally, someone arriving in Canada would find work that’s close to his skill levels, and while holding that first job, he would work on closing the gap through upgrading or completing professional licensing exams.

Unfortunately, an engineer who has to resort to driving a cab will probably end up never closing that gap, Greenberg said. Hence, “innovative approaches are going to be required to permit prospective immigrants to enter Canada prior to receiving immigrant visas to gain valuable experience before becoming an immigrant.”

In an approach that places immigration as part of “the labour market continuum,” more immigrants would come to Canada as temporary foreign workers, Greenberg added.

“If you’re in an occupation and you can get a job offer here, you shouldn’t have to wait three years to get here and see what you can do in that occupation. If you can make it here sooner on a temporary basis to gain work experience, then by the time you become an immigrant, you’ve already got the skills.”

Employer responsibility

Greenberg said as the labour market tightens, employers will step up to assume much of the work in finding workers abroad and bringing them here as temporary workers.

He pointed to Alberta’s experience as an example of how Canada can get out ahead and actively recruit skilled workers from all over the world.

Larry Pana, former director of the economic immigration program in the department of Alberta Economic Development, said the province’s strategy involved raising awareness among employers of the various programs that could be used to bring in workers, including the temporary foreign worker program and the provincial nominee program.

Recruitment efforts included job fairs abroad, which are opportunities for Albertan employers to interview job candidates who have been pre-screened by local agents. Back in Alberta, his staff work on identifying countries with bilateral agreements through which workers can easily be brought in, or those with the longest process times and should be avoided.

One of the key planks of the strategy involves employers playing a more prominent role in helping newcomers integrate, said Pana. He cited one example of an employer that had gone through the trouble of recruiting a technical specialist from abroad and brought him to Canada as a temporary foreign worker. That specialist had intentions of applying for permanent residency, so when a competing employer offered to help in that process, the foreign worker naturally took a job with the competitor.

In another example Pana encountered, an employer had brought a group of European technical trades workers into Canada, only to find them leave for home within six months.

“While the work environment was great, from the time they left work to the time they went to work, they were left to their own avail. There was no effort made with respect to settlement into the community. The employer now has a six-page checklist on what to do for foreign workers,” said Pana.

Programs to help employers become aware of their role, also known as “foreign worker readiness seminars,” are now a key part of a new four-part immigration strategy that Alberta unveiled early this month. The province is aiming for a significant increase in the number of immigrants heading for Alberta, from 16,500 in 2004 to a minimum of 24,000 a year.

The challenge for smaller communities

Smaller communities across Canada face varying difficulties in retaining immigrants and integrating immigrants, said Shirley Seward, chief executive officer of the Canadian Labour and Business Centre. The Ottawa-based labour and business think tank has recently conducted a series of roundtables on immigration in five smaller urban communities, including Fredericton, Hamilton, Windsor, Ont., Saskatoon and Victoria.

Seward said each community faces a distinct set of challenges — in Fredericton it’s hard to get immigrants to stay, while in Windsor there’s a high concentration of immigrants in low-paying jobs.

“The picture is very different in different communities, though there were some common characteristics. Everybody feels that we have to do a better job at informing immigrants before they come to Canada about language requirements and about how their credentials might be perceived. There’s a sense that we don’t do a good enough job with enhanced language training.”

But given the particular experience of each community, the solutions for successful integration of immigrants lie in the local partnerships formed by service agencies, business, labour, schools and governments.

“One thing that came through is it’s the municipalities themselves that bear both the benefits and the integration challenges with respect to immigrants. And I don’t think we’ve caught up to that reality in Canada, in terms of funding and responsibility and important jurisdictional issues,” said Seward.

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