All options are on the table for eliminating the massive backlogs in Canada's immigration system, including the possibility of legislating away the more than one-million applications waiting to be assessed.
Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney made the startling suggestion at a speech to the Economic Club of Canada in Ottawa Wednesday, saying that he hadn't made any decisions yet but is considering following the example of New Zealand, which eliminated its backlog by legislation in 2003.
"At this point, we're looking at all options for dealing with these backlogs and coming up with a faster, more responsive system. We owe it to newcomers to do that," Mr. Kenney said. "I do think that we can't continue to tell people that they're going to wait for eight years for a decision on whether they can come to Canada. It's not fair to them and it's not fair to our economy."
Mr. Kenney said the backlogs have made Canada's immigration system dysfunctional. If it takes seven or eight years to render a decision, that person's skills may no longer be needed in the labour market, he said. At the moment, potential immigrants must all be assessed by Canadian immigration officers, who receive roughly two applications for every available visa.
Mr. Kenney's speech outlined some of the major changes to immigration policy he plans to enact later this year. Last week, he proposed creating a "just-in-time" immigration system, one that would grant businesses a much more important role in immigrant selection.
On Wednesday, he emphasized the need to clear Canada's backlogs, which are huge. If no new applications were accepted, there are enough people waiting in the system to fill our skilled worker targets for the next five years. He also announced that provinces will be able to sift through the current pool of skilled worker applicants to cherry pick candidates for their provincial nominee programs.
Referring to the New Zealand example in his speech Wednesday, Mr. Kenney said eliminating the backlog at a stroke made that country's immigration system nimbler and more able to respond rapidly to changes in the labour market. He described the possibility of Canada moving to an "expression of interest" system, whereby applicants would consent to having their applications sifted by businesses and the provinces, to see who might be wanted where.
Lorne Waldman, a lawyer and immigration expert, said ministers have tried everything to get rid of backlogs over the years. In 2003, he led a class-action that forced the government to back down from using a regulatory change to eliminate the backlog. He said Mr. Kenney would have to pass new legislation to eliminate applications waiting in the queue.
"He can delay, he can prioritize some over others, I'm not sure whether he has the power to refuse to process [applications]" Mr. Waldman said. "He could put it into the legislation."
Guidy Mamann, an immigration law specialist, said Mr. Kenney has shown a willingness to make immigrants in the queue wait longer than those who have applied more recently.
"He creates a new system and concentrates on the people who applied under the new system, completely ignoring those who've waited quietly and patiently in line for fair treatment," Mr. Mamann said. "I have no doubt that he is willing to … ignore the hundreds of thousands of people who have been waiting for years."
Mr. Kenney said that at present nearly 80 per cent of skilled workers arriving in Canada are being pulled from the backlog and 20 per cent are newer applicants, chosen under more selective rules.
"We've been trying to basically keep juggling the system, to keep drawing down on the backlog but allowing some of the better prepared people with jobs to come in and it's still not working," Mr. Kenney said. "We're still frankly frustrated to be sitting on a backlog of 300,000 in that program alone."