Iain Reeve is the associate director of immigration at the Conference Board of Canada.
Earlier this year, Liberal MP Randeep Sarai put forward a private members’ motion in the House of Commons, calling for expanded immigration pathways for temporary residents to become permanent. Motion M-44 set out a timeline of 120 days for the federal government to respond, and in September, federal Immigration Minister Sean Fraser did so, tabling a strategy aimed at foreign workers and international students who have significant work experience in sectors with persistent labour shortages.
This is a step in the right direction. Research from the Conference Board of Canada shows that those with Canadian work experience that matches their skills and education are more likely to succeed economically. However, governments at both the federal and provincial levels must go further to create clear, predictable and stable pathways for temporary residents. Changing how we think about these transitions – and how the government defines a “Canadian work experience” – would improve outcomes for immigrants by expanding their economic opportunities and limiting their exposure to precarity and abuse.
Temporary residents currently fit into two broad categories: temporary workers and international students. A significant percentage of individuals in both groups want to stay in Canada and would benefit greatly from doing so. What’s more, both groups could deliver significant benefits to the country, particularly in achieving the objectives of Canada’s immigration levels plan, which aims to welcome 465,000 permanent residents in 2023; 485,000 in 2024 and 500,000 in 2025. But there is no clear pathway to permanent residency status for these individuals who, under existing skills requirements, don’t qualify. They need access to systems and better supports.
Temporary workers are those who often return to Canada on multiple visas and/or perform essential and in-demand roles. Canada is growing increasingly dependent on these workers, particularly in industries such as agricultural harvesting and manufacturing. Many businesses and services would benefit greatly from filling these essential roles with permanent employees.
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International students, meanwhile, are often referred to in research and rhetoric as “ideal immigrants.” Once they graduate, they have Canadian credentials, networks and experience, and can potentially boast existing exposure to the labour market. They can overcome economic and social integration barriers at a young age, thus allowing them to enjoy more years of success while contributing even more to the economy.
Despite their clear potential, both groups face significant barriers to achieving permanent residency. Temporary workers usually have comparatively lower levels of education and a lack of professional experience, both of which prevent them from qualifying for standard economic immigration pathways. International students, particularly those who achieve credentials below the university degree level, face similar challenges.
The government’s plan to increase immigration levels is laudable, and may mean that a greater number of temporary residents can transition to permanency. However, from 2015 to 2021, the number of permanent resident admissions grew by 49 per cent, to 406,025 from 271,840, while the number of temporary residents grew by 83 per cent, to 860,690 from 468,280. If current trends continue, a smaller percentage of temporary residents will make the transition, even as overall targets grow.
Improving processing capacity for both kinds of residents is essential, given the significant backlogs currently plaguing the system. Clearer pathways for permanent residency would in turn significantly reduce the processing load, because it would likely limit the tendency of workers and students to apply for multiple successive visas as they pursue permanency.
Part of Mr. Fraser’s plan is to expand eligibility for certain in-demand professions and review the points awarded for Canadian work experience, all with the aim of increasing candidates’ likelihood of success. This has potential, but also pitfalls. These criteria are inherently unpredictable and lack transparency, and the terms are subject to abrupt change. Immigrants, communities and employers need stable categories and rules to make decisions and develop strategies. Adding technicalities and volatility to a system as complex as Canada’s may only make it more challenging to navigate.
Altering the system to make pathways to permanent residency clearer and more predictable would maximize the benefits of immigration for immigrants and Canada alike. Temporary residency should be limited as much as possible to those who truly only want to be in Canada temporarily. For those who intend to stay, pathways to let them maximize their potential must be clear and effective. The government’s plan, as it stands, doesn’t achieve this objective.