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Tories can point to immigration policy as their one well-executed legacy issue

If the Harper government were defeated in the House of Commons tomorrow and lost the subsequent election, it would have only one really big thing to show for its seven years in power: immigration reform.

After all, the GST was probably the wrong tax to cut; the Conservatives managed the recession no better than a Liberal government would have; little of lasting consequence happened in health care or education; much of the crime legislation was probably unnecessary; abandoning the Kyoto Accord was nothing to be proud of; another government would no doubt have handled the winding down of the Afghanistan mission and the intervention in Libya the same way.

Only in immigration policy – as we were reminded Wednesday when Immigration Minister Jason Kenney rolled out some of the 2013 projections – can the Conservatives point to a major reform that was badly needed, long overdue, and well executed.

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Government-sponsored and other polls show a worrying decline in support for the current policy of bringing in about 250,000 people a year, more per capita than any other major developed country.

Unless the weaknesses and abuses in the system can be repaired, Canada risks the sort of anti-immigrant backlash that scars European and American societies.

Three flaws mar Canada's immigration policies and programs:

  • Bogus refugee claimants bog down the system at the expense of those who need and deserve protection.
  • Many immigrants arrive without the necessary language or work skills, or find they can’t get the skills they do have certified. (The surgeon-driving-a-taxi syndrome.)
  • And violence by a few immigrants or their children suggests that not everyone is successfully integrating once they come here.

The Tories have already moved against false refugee claims, by making it easier to remove those whose claims aren't valid and by penalizing mass arrivals such as the boatloads of Sri Lankans who showed up in 2009 and 2010.

To combat the other problems, on Wednesday Mr. Kenney announced a further expansion of the new and successful Canadian Experience Class category.

In 2009, the government gave permanent resident status to 2,500 foreign students and skilled workers here on temporary permits; for 2013 the target is 10,000.

"These are the immigrants of the future," Mr. Kenney told reporters. "They are set for success."

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Canada is increasingly in competition with other countries for the kinds of immigrants we need most.

"Bright young people were immigrating to Australia or New Zealand in a matter of months," Mr. Kenney observed, "while we were telling them to get in the back of an eight-year-long queue."

Recruiting skilled and educated students and workers who are already proficient in English or French (otherwise they wouldn't be succeeding at a Canadian university or a skilled Canadian job) will not only reduce labour shortages; their taxes will help pay for the pensions and health care of the older native born.

And their children will almost certainly not end up in a gang.

Over time, the Experience class share of total intake is slated to steadily expand, while the more general Skilled Worker class will steadily contract, easing the problem of above-average immigrant unemployment.

There is still much to do. The provincial nominee program, which allows provinces to directly recruit immigrants who have a job waiting for them, should be expanded; already it has contributed to increased immigration to the Prairies and to Atlantic Canada.

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And Employment Insurance rules need to be further restructured so that hiring a temporary foreign worker, rather than the Canadian equivalent, to staff a factory, a fish plant or a hotel during tourist season is an employer's last, rather than first, resort.

But the system is working far better than it was when the Tories took office. And the Conservatives have succeeded in implementing sometimes brutal reforms – such as reducing a backlog of overseas applicants by simply cancelling hundreds of thousands of those applications – while also winning unprecedented levels of support from immigrant voters, proving Mr. Kenney is an effective politician as well as minister.

Provided things continue along the current path, in a few years Canada could have an immigration system that recruits the brightest and best from around the world, with a wait time of months rather than years, which should firm up support for immigration among the broader population.

If a government had only one big legacy issue after seven years, this would not be a bad one to have.

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