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Immigration Minister Marc Miller, pictured on Jan. 22, announced several changes to Canada’s immigration system, including a limit on the number of student visas issued.Christinne Muschi/The Canadian Press

Every journey begins with a first step. The Trudeau government has finally taken a step toward fixing what it broke in Canada’s immigration system. This is not the end of the trip, not even close. But it’s a start.

Ottawa didn’t do the breaking on its own. The provinces helped. So did business.

In some provinces – take a bow, Ontario – just about anyone could set up an alleged institute of higher education, in a strip mall or office building. If the province was willing to accredit it (and some provinces seem to have accredited just about anything), the “school” would be recognized as a designated learning institution, or DLI.

Every DLI, from Venerable Old University to the Strip-Mall Academy of Excellence, was eligible for student visas. And the number of student visas Ottawa had on offer was unlimited.

Also unlimited: the right of visa students to work while enrolled. Spouses also get work permits. The only significant restriction is that graduates of Strip-Mall Academy are not eligible for postgraduation work permits. That means Strip-Mall students are supposed to stop working and leave Canada after completing their program. (If you think that always happens, I have a summer ice road to sell you.)

To get around the restriction, public colleges partnered with private operators, for mutual financial benefit. Many a strip-mall academy was rebranded as Legitimate Public College, Strip-Mall Campus – and presto, its tuition-payers became eligible for postgraduation work permits.

Immigration Minister Marc Miller aims to pare back this whole rotten system. What he’s announced doesn’t go far enough, but again: It’s a start.

For the first time, the feds will limit the number of student visas, to 364,000 new visas in 2024. Mr. Miller says that, compared with 2023, it’s a 35-per-cent reduction. Students already enrolled won’t be affected, and masters and PhD programs will be exempt.

Visas will be apportioned among provinces according to population. As the minister put it, all you have to do is take out a calculator to figure out which provinces will have room to raise enrolment, and which will have to cut. Alberta, Saskatchewan and Quebec are in the first group. The Maritime provinces, British Columbia and Ontario are in the second.

Mr. Miller’s move will force provinces to prioritize which institutions and programs are visa-worthy, and which are not. It’s about time.

Mr. Miller is also taking a direct shot at public colleges partnering with private operators. As of this fall, international students enrolled at Public College, Strip-Mall Campus will no longer be eligible for postgraduate work permits.

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That’s good, but it doesn’t go far enough. The strip-mall model needs to be more than just disincentivized; it should be nuked out of existence. Instead, Mr. Miller is promising a non-stop flow of postgraduate work permits for those currently enrolled, many of whom won’t graduate until 2025 or 2026. That window should be closed, immediately.

He should also immediately end the right of visa students in college and university undergraduate programs to work off-campus. That would get the system back to the way it used to be.

He took a small step in this direction by announcing that spouses of most visa students will no longer be eligible for work permits – closing a loophole that allowed foreign couples to get two entry visas, and two work permits, for the price of one strip-mall enrolment.

What else is still to be fixed?

The temporary foreign worker stream, which barely existed until the early 2010s, now accounts for more arrivals than traditional immigration. The temporary population of Canada hit more than 2.5 million last fall, up more than 10-fold since 2000. (That’s the official number. The real number may be a million higher.)

Businesses have been given carte blanche to recruit hundreds of thousands of low-wage, allegedly temporary workers for full-time, permanent jobs. The whole thing should be shut down, now. That would take the system back to the past, and to a better future.

Ottawa also needs to stem the flow of people who get on a plane to Canada claiming to be tourists, but make a refugee claim as soon as they land. Previous governments, whether Conservative or Liberal, imposed visa requirements on countries whose travellers generated large numbers of refugee claims. The Trudeau government has not.

That partly explains why Toronto’s homeless shelter system is overwhelmed. It’s why Quebec’s Premier last week wrote to Ottawa, demanding action. The federal immigration plan aims to welcome 76,000 refugees this year, many chosen directly from overseas. But right now, there are more than 156,000 people in Canada with a refugee claim pending, triple the number of just two years ago. In a backlogged system, those claims will take years to adjudicate.

The biggest source of refugee claimants arriving at airports is Mexico. The Trudeau government introduced visa-free travel for Mexicans, despite warnings of the consequences. In 2015, there were 110 refugee claims from Mexico made on Canadian soil. Over the past year, there were more than 24,000.

Mr. Miller has finally taken a first step to repairing the immigration system. All he has to do now is keep walking.

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