People seeking to bring parents or grandparents to Canada this year were reportedly paying up to $400 to ensure their applications were at the top of the pile for the first-come, first-served federal immigration program that was flooded with far more applications than available spots.
The appearance that it's possible to buy a way to the front of the parent and grandparent sponsorship program is raising concerns about the program's fairness ahead of planned changes to the system.
Since 2014, the program has only accepted 5,000 applications a year, cutting off intake after that number has been reached. The paperwork must be submitted by mail or by registered courier.
This year, line-ups at the immigration processing centre in Mississauga, Ont., began hours before the program opened to new applications on Jan. 4. Some couriers showed up with bags of what appeared to be hundreds of applications, according to photographs obtained by The Canadian Press.
Others boasted about their efforts. Metro Mississauga Courier has a notice on its website saying it had a position within the top three in the line-up and had been there since 10 a.m. the day before to secure a space.
"The larger companies come late, do not wait in the lineup and usually leave without your application ever making it into the mailroom. Avoid wasting a critical opportunity and money," the company says in its pitch for new business.
Andre Nicolae said he thought he had everything in good order when he sent off his application to sponsor his 80-year-old Romanian grandmother.
The Hamilton, Ont., man sent it via UPS and was told it had arrived by 6:31 a.m., a time that he figured guaranteed him a spot at the top of the line. So he was disheartened to hear from a courier friend that there were dozens of people in line by that hour and many of them were dropping off thousands of applications at once.
While he'd paid a regular courier fee, he was told some people had paid up to $400 just to ensure their application was at the front of the line. He said its raises questions for him about the fairness of the program.
"I don't think it's fair because you introduce the money issue — people without money won't have that opportunity and it's not fair in that sense," he said.
"But I can't really think of a viable alternative."
The Immigration Department said they received 14,000 applications altogether for the parent and grandparent program and as of Jan. 7, were not taking any more.
But in a sign that change may be imminent, they say they are holding onto some of the excess applications rather than just returning them.
"Canada is committed to reuniting families and the government of Canada is seeking to increase the intake of parent and grandparent sponsorship applications from 5,000 to 10,000 per year," the department said in a notice posted on its website last week.
The increase to the program was a Liberal campaign promise. But the overall system itself may not change, a spokesperson for the department suggested in an e-mail.
When asked about whether the government had any concerns about the integrity of the program, given the high prices being charged by couriers, department spokesperson Faith St. John said they are aware of the high interest in and importance of the program.
"(The department) makes every effort to make the process as fair and transparent as possible, and operates the PGP Program on the "first in, first out" principle, whereby applications are processed in the order they are received," she wrote in an e-mail.
Immigration lawyer David Cohen said coming to Canada shouldn't be akin to waiting for tickets to a Justin Bieber concert. But while the system isn't perfect, he said, the government does still need to figure out a way to get through the current backlog of applications and keep a certain number coming in.
"I suppose the only thing that would be more transparent or at least the perception of fairness would be a lottery system," he said.
"But you'd still have as many disappointed people."
While there is a cap on the number of new applications the government will take in, it actually accepts far more people – an estimated 18,000 to 20,000 a year.
Those come from the backlog of files that had prompted the previous Conservative government to shut down the program altogether for three years and then re-open it with the cap, as well as other changes, in 2014.