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A PSAC worker holds a flag on a picket line in Ottawa, Wednesday, April 19, 2023. Canada's largest federal public-service union and the federal government remain at the bargaining table as workers strike and service disruptions begin to be felt across the country. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean KilpatrickSean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The federal workers’ strike will add further delays to an immigration and refugee settlement system that experts say is already overburdened and showing signs of distress.

The 155,000 Public Service Alliance of Canada workers who walked off the job this week included immigration and refugee officers, as well as government workers responsible for processing citizenship and passport applications. This comes at a time of record-level immigration in Canada, and amidst concerns about the infrastructure in place to support those newcomers.

“It’s just more delay in a system that’s already really backlogged,” immigration lawyer Debbie Rachlis said. “Wait times that are already so long. Response times that are so long.”

Immigration Minister Sean Fraser told reporters on Wednesday that it’s too soon to predict the full impact of the strike. But, he said, “I do expect that the impact will be severe, depending on the length of any work stoppage.”

At the outset of the strike on Wednesday morning, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada – the department responsible for processing citizenship applications, work permits, refugee claims and visitor visas – issued a warning that many of its services would be delayed or fully disrupted. The Immigration and Refugee Board, which handles refugee claims, issued a similar warning.

More than 155,000 federal government workers are on strike. These services will be affected

By Wednesday afternoon, lawyers said they’d already seen appointments and hearings for their clients with the IRCC and IRB rescheduled, delayed or cancelled altogether.

For many, it was only the latest in a process already marked by lengthy delays.

In 2022, Canada welcomed a record number of newcomers: more than 430,000 people, as part of the federal government’s plan to aggressively increase its immigrant intake to help address labour shortages. At the same time, the country saw a surge in the number of migrants entering the country after pandemic restrictions were lifted.

But our system for processing those newcomers groaned in response.

At the start of February, about 2.1 million immigration applications were awaiting processing. The average waiting time for a newcomer applying for a work permit was about five months. And even those who had already been approved for permanent residency were facing long waits just to receive their permanent-resident card in the mail.

The waits for refugee claimants were even longer. The Immigration Refugee Board told The Globe earlier this month that refugee claimants were waiting an average of 20 months for a decision. That’s on top of the time it takes for the claim to be referred to the Refugee Protection Division.

A statement from the IRB Wednesday said the board would do its best to minimize the impact of the strike.

Still, this week’s labour disruptions will only exacerbate the existing challenges, immigration lawyer Warda Shazadi Meighen said. “And the ripple effect,” she said, “will be felt across the community.”

She cited the many universities and colleges that rely on international students for tuition dollars who will be affected by longer waits for student visas. She also cited the many employers already facing labour shortages who will wait longer for work permits. Many critical industries, such as health care, she said, have become dependent on immigrant labour.

“Depending on how long the strike goes on, this will have implications for employers and the labour market more generally, and, of course, to the economy,” she said.

And then there’s the human impact.

“The actual human impact is parents being separated from children,” Ms. Rachlis said. “Or family members who aren’t able to get visas to travel to Canada to be at the deathbed of a relative, or to attend a funeral. Or a wedding, or the birth of a child or grandchild.”

Lisa Middlemiss, who chairs the national immigration law section of the Canadian Bar Association, said it is a shame, given the IRCC had appeared to make strides in recent months at reducing backlogs.

“The demand is so great to come to Canada, that it’s a constant struggle to keep up – let alone with these kinds of disruptions.”

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