Published on Saturday December 29, 2012
Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has played a key role in making changes that, among other things, favour skilled workers and require future citizens to pass language proficiency tests.
Debra Black and Nicholas Keung
Over the past year Ottawa has made some sweeping and controversial changes to the immigration, asylum and refugee system, and the rules involving Canadian citizenship.
In doing so, the federal Conservative government has radically changed the landscape and made it much tougher for many to make Canada their home.
Here is a primer on the most critical changes.
• Immigration Minister Jason Kenney announced he was going to wipe out the federal skilled workers program backlog and establish a new pool of immigrant skilled workers. The announcement triggered a legal challenge to be heard in Federal Court in January 2013.
Known as the Expression of Interest System, the new program will allow employers to choose potential candidates from a ready pool of pre-screened skilled workers. It’s similar to a program currently used in New Zealand and Australia.
• Kenney announced a new direction in the federal skilled workers program, opening the door for skilled trades workers and offering permanent residency to electricians, welders, heavy-duty equipment mechanics and pipefitters to help relieve the labour shortage amid a construction boom in places such as Alberta and Ontario, which will host the Pan American Games in 2015.
• Kenney has given himself, in Bill C-43, legislation that is still before Parliament, sweeping powers to bar people from being allowed into Canada for “public policy considerations.”
In the same bill, Ottawa has changed the rules governing deportation of criminals who are permanent residents. If passed, the bill would make it easier for Ottawa to deport an immigrant with permanent resident status who has been sentenced to six months or more for a crime. There would also be no right to an appeal.
At present, the law only allows such action if someone has been sentenced to two years less a day, and there is a right to appeal. The new law, if passed, will effectively impose a “one strike and you’re out” rule, according to critics.
• Kenney has tightened up the rules around spousal sponsorship and conditional permanent residence status, triggering criticism from human rights lawyers, refugee groups and women’s groups.
Foreigners sponsored to enter Canada as spouses must stay in the relationship for two years before they’re granted permanent residence status under the new law.
If they don’t, they face deportation. Kenney argues that the new law will crack down on marriage fraud. The caveat: It does not apply to those who are victims of abuse or neglect, Kenney said.
• The minister of immigration announced that Ottawa would be changing the point system used to judge skilled-immigrant applications, emphasizing language skills and professional credentials equivalent to Canada’s. Language proficiency will become a more important factor in whether applicants are approved.
• Kenney performed radical surgery on Canada’s refugee system. He moved to designate specific refugees as “irregular arrivals” — which allows for mandatory arrest and detention for up to a year. The law was prompted by two boatloads of Tamil refugees who in 2009 and 2010 arrived on the shores of British Columbia.
The law calls for officials to detain migrants for investigation. What’s more irregular arrivals are banned from applying for permanent resident status, sponsoring family members and acquiring refugee travel documents for five years even if their refugee claims are accepted.
• Ottawa has created a list of safe countries of origin — countries considered capable of providing state protection for their citizens. A total of 27 countries have been named, 25 of them from the European Union. They include: Austria, Croatia, France, Hungary, Italy, Malta, Portugal, Spain and the United Kingdom.
Countries will be designated safe if their combined rejection, withdrawal and abandonment rate of asylum claims exceeds 75 per cent or when the withdrawn and abandoned caseload tops 60 per cent.
Refugees from “safe” countries will have their case fast-tracked through the refugee process, with their claims heard within 30 to 45 days. They will not be able to appeal the decision and will be removed from Canada in a year. All other eligible refugee claimants will receive a hearing within 60 days after their claim is referred to the refugee board.
• In a surprising move to the medical community and refugee advocates, Kenney announced that Ottawa would cut health benefits to refugee claimants. He claimed the move would save Ottawa $100 million over five years and discourage “unfounded” refugees from coming to Canada to seek medical care.
• In another move to protect Canada’s borders, Kenney, under the Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act, introduced biometric measures — the collection of fingerprints and photos — from applicants in 29 countries, including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Burma, Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti, Iran, Jamaica, Jordan, Haiti, Pakistan, Vietnam and Yemen.
This fingerprint information will be sent to the RCMP for storage and will be checked against the fingerprint records of refugee claimants, previous deportees, persons with Canadian criminal records and previous temporary resident applicants before a visa decision is made.
• Prospective Canadian citizens must now provide proof of language proficiency — in English or French — before they can apply for citizenship. The new regulation will affect candidates between the ages of 18 and 54. Immigration officials will return applications of those who do not provide evidence of proficiency.
• Kenney announced in September he would be revoking the citizenship of 3,100 people — mostly from the Persian Gulf States — who had lied about their residency and failed to reside in Canada for three of the four previous years when they applied for citizenship. The announcement came after the creation of an immigration fraud tip line in 2011.
Temporary Foreign Workers
• Rules surrounding temporary foreign workers were radically rewritten. Close to 191,000 temporary foreign workers came to Canada in 2011, 67,000 in Ontario.
• Changes were made to allow employers to pay temporary high-skilled foreign workers up to 15 per cent less than the prevailing local wage. In the case of low-skilled workers, it’s 5 per cent less.
• In December, Ottawa eliminated the special parental benefits for foreign migrant workers who contribute an estimated $3.4 million to the country’s employment insurance system.
This means 30,000 migrant workers who are employed under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program are not eligible to take leave and collect any benefit while caring for newborns or sick children. Migrant workers have never been eligible for full EI benefits but previously they could access special benefits for up to 35 weeks — even if they were outside of Canada.