Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Immigration Minister Sean Fraser speaks to reporters before heading into a meeting of the Liberal caucus, on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on March 8.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

The federal government will allow thousands of foreign nationals with expiring postgraduation work permits to extend their stays in Canada by up to 18 months, a relief for temporary residents who faced the possibility of being forced to leave the country, and for Canadian employers who depend on them to fill an abundance of jobs.

Starting on April 6, workers whose PGWPs are set to expire this year can opt in to the extension. Foreign nationals whose PGWPs have already expired in 2023 can apply for additional 18-month work permits.

The move will help many skilled workers stay in their jobs. And it will buy them more time in which to become permanent residents, who can live and work in Canada indefinitely and eventually apply for citizenship.

The federal government announced similar extensions in 2021 and 2022, owing to significant disruptions in the immigration process during the pandemic.

“We want to continue to hang on to that talent in Canada – not just to fill gaps in the short term in the labour force, but to ensure that we’re meeting the long-term needs of the economy by continuing to have skilled workers who are educated in Canada, here making a difference,” Immigration Minister Sean Fraser said Friday at a news conference.

The decision was cheered by foreign workers, whose lives were in limbo. “It’s such a huge relief,” said Jaicy Thomas, whose work permit expired in late February. “I know many people who lost interviews and jobs because of this. They can finally look into the future and make plans for themselves.”

International graduates can get PGWPs that allow them to work in Canada for up to three years, depending on how long they studied here. The PGWP is an open work permit, meaning a recipient’s immigration status is not tied to a specific employer. The permit usually can’t be extended, but many graduates use it as a springboard to gaining permanent residence.

Former international students account for a large chunk of immigration to Canada. In 2022, nearly 95,000 of them transitioned to permanent residence out of a total intake of roughly 431,000.

Around 127,000 PGWPs will expire in 2023, although just more than half of those permit holders have already applied for permanent residence. It is likely that tens of thousands of people will benefit from Friday’s announcement.

PGWP holders had been openly critical of the federal government in recent months, saying the immigration process had become increasingly unpredictable, offering them fewer chances to settle here permanently. Some people have lost their jobs this year because their permits expired, while others have had job offers rescinded.

The former students are trying to become permanent residents through the Express Entry system for skilled workers. Everyone in that pool of candidates is given a Comprehensive Ranking System score, based on such factors as age, education and language proficiency. Prior to 2021, every couple weeks the federal government would invite a few thousand people with the highest scores to apply for permanent residence.

The trouble is that over the past 18 months Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada has invited people only sporadically, owing to a massive backlog of immigration applications it has struggled to process.

After failing to hit its immigration targets in 2020, Ottawa invited loads of temporary residents to apply for permanent residence in 2021. This rush of applicants, combined with office closings related to COVID-19, jammed up the system. At times last year, there were more than 2.5 million immigration applications in the processing queue. (These included visitor visa, permanent residence and citizenship applications.)

To cope with that volume, the federal government stopped inviting people to apply for permanent residence from the Express Entry pool for nearly 10 months, before resuming activities in July, 2022. There was a recent seven-week pause that ended in January, which IRCC blamed on technical issues.

During those stoppages, more and more people added themselves to the Express Entry pool – and in turn, that has inflated the scores needed to get invitations. Before the pandemic, a CRS score of 440 was frequently enough to get an invite; in recent rounds, the cut-off was 490 or higher.

“Those who certainly would have qualified previously didn’t have the same opportunity,” Mr. Fraser said on Friday.

The federal government is planning to ramp up its intake of permanent residents to 500,000 annually by 2025. It has said this is necessary to counteract an aging society, and to ensure there are plentiful workers for Canadian companies, which have recently complained of labour shortages in some sectors.

PGWP holders don’t necessarily have to leave the country when their permits expire. They can switch to visitor visas, although they aren’t able to work legally with that status. Another option is to apply for a closed work permit, after getting a job offer. The downside is that doing so ties a person’s immigration status to their employer, hindering their ability to switch jobs.

Shyam Sonagara tendered his resignation at a private health care company in February, because his permit was expiring. His plan was to live off savings and boost his CRS score, in hopes of eventually getting an invitation.

Now, Mr. Sonagara plans to ask for his job back. “I was really happy” with Friday’s announcement, he said.

Ms. Thomas, who has a CRS score of 486, has narrowly missed out on permanent residence invitations. With an 18-month extension, her odds of settling permanently in Canada have improved.

“I’m hoping they can bring the score down to like the 470s or 480s, at least, so people like me can qualify,” she said.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe