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Minister Chris Alexander’s department said this week those with jobs offers or nominations from provinces will be picked first. The first draw from the Express Entry pool of applicants will be held in late January.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The government is granting itself more discretionary power to decide who gets permanent residency in Canada through a new Express Entry system that will fast-track applications for the most desirable economic immigrants and allow Ottawa to match highly skilled foreigners to prospective employers.

The new system, which debuts Jan. 1, is the culmination of years of overhauls by the governing Conservatives who want Canada to be more nimble in the global scramble to recruit foreign talent and more hard-nosed about choosing newcomers who are of benefit to this country.

Some critics worry the changes grant too much discretion to the federal department of immigration compared with the old system, where newcomers were processed on a first-come, first-served basis and the earliest applicants in line got first priority.

Under Express Entry, those applicants ranked highest by Ottawa under a new points system are the most likely to be invited to apply for permanent residency. Ottawa is vowing a processing time of six months for Express Entry applicants – a huge improvement over past queues.

Foreign nationals accepted into the Express Entry pool will register with the same federal Job Bank used to find employment for Canadians. The difference is they can only be matched with jobs for which no Canadian workers can be found.

Ottawa will function as matchmaker under the new system, pairing prospective economic immigrants with the needs of private-sector employers. Companies won't have unfettered access to search the pool of Express Entry applicants for hires but will rely on the government to offer them potential matches.

This matchmaking function, however, will not be running as of Jan. 1, the federal government says in a November presentation given to stakeholders and obtained by The Globe and Mail. This feature will come in spring, 2015, a spokesman for Employment and Social Development Canada said Tuesday evening.

A job offer in hand is a real bonus under the ranking system for applicants. Up to 1,200 points will be awarded to those seeking Express Entry for "human capital factors" such as education, work experience and whether they are relatively young – 20 to 29 being the ideal age – whether their skills are easily transferable and whether they have an employment offer or are being nominated by a provincial government.

"The system will be utilized to match Canadians with available jobs, and if no Canadian is available, the system will match jobs to candidates under Express Entry," Simon Rivet with Employment and Social Development Canada said. "Full implementation is expected later in spring 2015, when employers will be able to connect directly with potential employees who possess the skills they need."

Immigration Minister Chris Alexander's department said this week those with jobs offers or nominations from provinces will be picked first. The first draw from the Express Entry pool of applicants will be held in late January.

Ottawa will be able to draw applicants from this pool and invite them to apply for permanent residency as needs arise for workers in various labour markets across Canada. Permanent residency is a pathway to citizenship.

Citizenship and Immigration Canada spokeswoman Sonia Lesage said Express Entry ensures that "only the candidates who are most likely to succeed – not simply the first to submit their application – are able to apply to immigrate to Canada."

The governing Conservatives have made economic bottom-line considerations a bigger priority not only in immigration but also when it comes to files such as foreign aid and the streamlining of environmental assessments.

The government will also be able to quickly shift priorities for intake of immigrants when needed, says Sarah Anson-Cartwright, director of skills policy with the Canadian Chamber of Commerce. "The government at any point can make adjustments and decide 'We're more keen on higher-language proficiency at this point, let's ratchet that up,'" she said.

Ms. Anson-Cartwright said her business group is pleased with the "central role that employers can have in the selection process" of skilled immigrants.

Richard Kurland, a Vancouver-based immigration lawyer, said he's concerned Ottawa is replacing a "a transparent predictable process" with one that gives bureaucrats too much discretion to decide who gets into this country.

"Before, you calculated points, sent in your case, and were processed 'first-come first-served,'" Mr. Kurland said in an e-mail.

"Now, you calculate points, send in your case, and there is a giant 'pool' where a huge number of people 'qualify' and no explanation prior to the selection of a case why one specific case is chosen and another is not," he said.

"Not having transparency, oversight, or accountability is a recipe for political interference."