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year-end interview

Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Jason Kenney gesture during an interview at his office in Ottawa on Dec. 13, 2012.Dave Chan

The next step in the Harper government's transformation of Canada's immigration system will turn Ottawa into an online matchmaker, connecting would-be migrants with employers who want to hire them.

In a year-end interview, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney described the coming Web-based "Expression of Interest" system – to be in place by 2014 – as the culmination of more than five years of reform. It will be an invitation-only route for economic immigrants where prospective arrivals advertise their skills and qualifications on a Canadian government database that will be perused by employers looking to hire more than just temporary workers.

"They'll go into this pool, and then employers or my department and or provinces will be able to fish out of that pool," Mr. Kenney said of the system, which is being developed with the provinces.

"It's like a dating site."

A variation on programs in place in Australia and New Zealand, this represents another step away from a passive immigration system – which merely accepts people on a first-come, first-served basis – to one in which newcomers are chosen according to how they can benefit Canada.

Under the new system, foreigners who post their interest in immigrating are not automatically allowed to apply for permanent residence. They would have to be invited.

The expression-of-interest system would not be mandatory for economic immigrants, but Mr. Kenney's office says it expects employers and provinces – which pick their share of newcomers under provincial nominee programs – to quickly embrace it.

Foreigners would fill out a form indicating their occupation, work experience and education, and would attach mandatory language assessments and an evaluation of how their education credentials translate to Canada.

"An employer will be able to say, 'Look, we're doing a major mining development in Ontario. We need skilled mining engineers and we're unable to find them in Canada,' " Mr. Kenney explained.

Instead of bringing in temporary workers, they can recruit permanent residents who bring skills that are in short supply in Canada.

If the candidates meet immigration qualifications, Ottawa would process their applications within months. "They would arrive in Canada as permanent residents with prearranged jobs and literally be going to work at their skill level within a few days of arrival."

Mr. Kenney has reformed the once badly horrendously backlogged immigration system in part by creating new programs that fast-track arrival for economic immigrants considered priorities for Canada.

These include the Canada Experience Class, introduced in 2009, which speeds permanent-residence applications for skilled foreign workers and graduate students who have spent time in Canada on temporary permits or student visas – ones that can demonstrate they are proficient in either English or French.

Before it was created, highly skilled outsiders could not become permanent residents from within Canada. Under the new program, applicants can apply from within Canada and expect a quicker decision – normally within one year.

Canada finds itself under pressure to more efficiently and quickly recruit skilled immigrants because it's now in competition with other industrialized countries looking for the same qualities as a means of shoring up low birth rates.

Mr. Kenney recalls how an encounter several years ago helped drive home the need for change. It was 2009 in Mumbai, India, when the minister met a top graduate of the Indian Institutes of Technology – India's equivalent to Boston's MIT – and Mr. Kenney tried to encourage him to move to Canada.

"He asked me what would be involved in that, and I suddenly realized, with great embarrassment, he'd have to go and apply for the federal skilled worker program and get in the back of an eight-year-long queue," Mr. Kenney said.

"He said, 'But minister, I have friends whom I graduated with who managed to get residency in Australia and New Zealand in a matter of months.' That helped to crystallize for me how badly we were losing the race for the world's top talent."

In April, 2013, Mr. Kenney will become the longest continually serving Immigration Minister in Canadian history, according to his department.

He still falls short of former Liberal Lloyd Axworthy for longest tenure, but the Winnipeg politician's time in the post comprised two separate stints.

Mr. Kenney's overhaul of immigration has focused on two goals: smarter selection of newcomers and reinforcing public confidence in the system – all the while leaving admittance levels at about 250,000 a year.

He's fond of quoting New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman's concept of an ideal immigration system: one that has a strong fence but a wide gate.

That explains, he says, the steady conservative crackdown on immigration scofflaws, from crooked immigration agents to fake marriages or newcomers who commit serious crimes.

"If you want to maintain public support for a generous immigration system you cannot tolerate widespread abuse of your generosity," he said.

The new system, with a focus on in-demand skills and more stringent language requirements – newcomers must be proficient in English or French – is geared at preventing the growth of an immigrant underclass.

"This is the future as opposed to the past, where we would tell people to apply, to get in the back of an eight-year-long queue, [but] never assess whether their overseas education was relevant to the Canadian system, eventually bring them to Canada and drop them in the middle of the labour market, typically one of the three biggest cities, to sink or swim," he said.

Mr. Kenney uses an airline analogy to explain what's changing.

Under the old system, he says, Canada was accepting too many applications each year and requests to immigrate were handled in chronological order.

"There is an immigration plane to Canada and it's got a quarter of a million seats on it, but we were selling four- to five-hundred-thousand tickets every year. We were overbooking, and so every year there would be 150,000 people who'd paid for their ticket – that is to say, paid for their application – left standing in the departure lounge," he said.

This led to a huge backlog of applicants. "Are the most mobile passengers going to get into that crazy departure lounge and wait eight years? No. Of course not."