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FILE PHOTO:  30 workers, most recent immigrants, that were rescued from a remote forestry camp in Golden, B.C.Handout

Six months after the B.C. government called for more authority to boost its intake of skilled immigrants, officials have suspended a program that fast-tracked visas for business investors following a suspicious surge in applications.

British Columbia's provincial nominee program saw an "extraordinary" increase in the number of business applicants for a category that promised a speedy visa in exchange for a $125,000 bond. The spike came after the federal government placed a moratorium on its own investor and entrepreneur visa programs.

The decision to suspend the program was announced while B.C. Jobs Minister Pat Bell was meeting in Toronto with federal, provincial and territorial immigration ministers this week to press British Columbia's demand for more skilled immigrants.

The fast-track program, which provided speedy access to permanent residence status for investors who promised to start a business in B.C., was a potential embarrassment for the province's capacity to handle immigration affairs.

A review sparked by the increase in applications found an uncomfortable result – few of those B.C. nominees who had put up a bond were actually running a business as promised. Mr. Bell told reporters Friday that the fast-track program has a "disappointing" success rate of under 20 per cent.

"It's prudent for us to suspend it now that we have flagged what we think could be a problem," he said.

Earlier in the day, government officials offered a background briefing to elaborate on the nature of that problem.

"We have seen a very large spike in applications to our business program over the last six months or so … possibly driven by people who really are passive investors," said a senior government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"They no longer have access to the federal investor program, so they may be looking at the fast-track option as an alternative to that program. It really isn't. We require people actually set up a business and actively manage it. You cannot just put up money and collect a permanent resident's visa."

Between April and September of this year, the business immigration stream under the province's nominee program had 383 applications, a 120-per-cent increase compared to the volume in the previous six months. Most of the applicants were from China.

Last May, the B.C. government released a report calling on Ottawa to "grow and expand" the provincial nominee program, citing the need for more than 300,000 immigrants to fill new jobs in the coming decade. The same report from the Immigration Task Force warned that businesses may have to close or relocate if the province can't immediately increase its immigration levels.

But in recent weeks, the skills shortage has created heat for Mr. Bell and his government, with an angry backlash over the temporary foreign worker program that saw a Canadian company obtain work permits for about 200 Chinese workers for a B.C. coal mine. Ottawa is now reviewing that case.

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