‘Renewed’ vision will help Canada compete: Finley

Immigration changes give minister too much discretion, say critics

Proposed changes to Canada’s immigration laws have come under fire for the power they would give federal Immigration Minister Diane Finley to place immigrants whose job skills are in demand ahead of the queue.

Critics say the changes would give the minister too much power and risks shutting out talented immigrants.

But Finley said the changes to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act are necessary because, without them, the backlog of immigration applications could grow to 1.5 million by 2012, up from the current level of 925,000. And newcomers would also face a 10-year wait, she told a Commons committee, adding that Canada needs a “renewed” vision for immigration if it wants to compete internationally for talent and skills.

However, the changes won’t achieve that because they don’t address the root problems of immigration, according to many people in the business community.

The biggest roadblock for many employers is the cost of hiring an immigrant, said David Coombes, president of Success Immigration Services in Victoria — a firm that helps bring foreign truck drivers to Canada.

Trucking companies in B.C. are on the hook for airfare plus accommodation while the new immigrant takes the required training for licensing in Canada, he said.

“There’s quite a small profit margin in business,” said Coombes. “There needs to be an omnibus bill that looks over the entire economic realm of Canada. We’ve got these needs for workers and we’ve got this problem where smaller companies — mom and pop businesses — are running on the edge of bankruptcy. It’s too costly for them to pay people like me.”

Even industries facing acute labour shortages are cautious about the proposals. The Canadian Construction Association in Ottawa is staying neutral, according to Jeff Morrison, director of government relations and public affairs, because the issue is politically charged and there are still too many unknowns.

“Really all that measure does is provide the minister with greater flexibility in determining the types, or the classes, of immigrants that come in,” he said. “What we don’t know is what she would do with that power.”

The proposals fall short on specifics, said Morrison. There’s little mention of how the government plans to target identified labour or skill needs, he said.

While the proposed changes are “a good first step,” said Sergio Karas, a Toronto-based immigration lawyer, the government has taken the wrong approach by including the changes in a budget bill. That’s because it doesn’t allow for a full debate on immigration in the House of Commons.

“What is necessary is for us to decide what kind of country we need or we want. Do we want a country that is basically following a model of we want to be nice Canadians and immigration is basically a social welfare program?” he said. “Or, do we want a country that is competitive, is modern, is going to have a trained labour force, is going to have a spark of entrepreneurship and innovation?”

The argument that there are already many underemployed immigrants in Canada doesn’t ring true for Karas, who is also chair of the Ontario Bar Association Citizenship and Immigration Section. He estimates three-quarters of all immigrants are not “economically useful” because they’re not proficient in English, they lack recognizable training or education and they locate to communities — particularly the Greater Toronto Area — where their skills may not be needed.

“In 2008, we need immigration to be a component of a labour pool,” he said. “All these years, we’ve been trying to bring in immigrants and force them into the labour market. It’s like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. It doesn’t work.”

Danielle Harder is a Whitby, Ont.-based freelance writer.

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