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Immigration Minister John McCallum speaks in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Nov. 2, 2016.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The length of time it takes to process spousal sponsorship applications for immigrants is dropping to months from years under a multimillion-dollar revamp of a key, the federal government said Wednesday.

Current wait times ranging from an average of 18 months for overseas applications to upwards of two years for spouses already in Canada will plunge to 12 months, Federal Immigration Minister John McCallum said.

"I have always felt it was wrong for the heavy hand of the Canadian state to keep people apart for two years," McCallum said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

The changes mean anyone with an application currently in the system will see a decision on their case by December 2017 at the latest, while about 80 per cent of new applications will be processed within the 12-month timeline.

The last federal budget set aside $25 million to help get family sponsorship wait times down and that money, along with a new application process and making more room in the immigration program for spousal sponsorship, are behind the change, McCallum said.

In 2015, the target was to admit about 48,000 people but there were over 70,000 applications, the Immigration Department said. In 2016, the target for admission is 60,000 and for next year, it will be 64,000. There is a current backlog of about 80,000 applications in the system, McCallum said.

The changes won't just be good for those being admitted, McCallum said.

"People are more productive citizens when they are with their families, when they are at ease in their home life, so I think it is good for the country as a whole," he said.

None of the mandatory security or medical screenings are being changed in any way, it is just that the system is being made more efficient, he said.

The need for greater efficiencies in immigration processing is one of the reasons McCallum has stood behind a controversial plan to close an immigration processing centre in Vegreville, Alta., and move its work 100 kilometres away to Edmonton by 2018.

About 280 people work in the Vegreville office and on Tuesday, the area's member of Parliament, Conservative Shannon Stubbs, read letter after letter to McCallum about what it will mean for them to potentially lose their jobs in an economy already feeling the sting of oilpatch job losses.

She cited the impact on schools which will lose students when families are forced to relocate, the lack of an entry point for people into the federal civil service and the fact local businesses will feel the pinch as well.

McCallum said the changes to the spousal sponsorship program aren't connected to the closure of the Vegreville office, but instead are part of a new application kit that will be formally launched on Dec. 15.

"In fact, we are hiring more people with the $25 million to process these applications," he said.

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