Speaking notes for Ahmed Hussen, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship at a Luncheon at the Canadian Club of Toronto


Toronto, Ontario
April 19, 2017

As delivered

Thank you for that kind introduction. I want to start by talking about a young man who is on a journey to Canada. He is filled with conflicting emotions. One he’s thinking about the fear that engulfs him as he thinks about this new country and this new land and wondering whether people there will accept him, what are the norms there and the language and so on.

But at the same time in equal fashion he is filled with hope and excitement at the possibility of restarting life and having opportunities for himself and his family. Ladies and gentlemen, thanks for coming today in the middle of the day to hear me speak. A few days ago we celebrated the 35th anniversary of our Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. 

This is a document that has revolutionized Canadian society and has really influenced our jurisprudence and made us into a rights based society and enabled us to welcome people from all over the world to create equality – and aspire to create equality and create opportunity for all of us.

Why are we here? Why are you here today to listen to me, to talk about immigration, to talk to you as the Minister of Immigration? Why is immigration important? Everywhere you go in Canada if you talk to different stakeholders, if you talk to different groups, they will keep talking about how we have a skills shortage, how we have a worker shortage, how we have demographic challenges in various parts of this great country.

Although immigration is not the silver bullet for all of that it is the key to address some if not all of those concerns. As we think about that we have to ask ourselves what does immigration look like today? In other words, what does the department that I lead today look like? When you look at that you realize that a lot of the programming that is in Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada is actually geared towards making sure we continue to welcome people who need protection and sanctuary but also compete in the real global race for talent and skills.

What we are doing in Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada is to for example maintain and grow our tradition of being a progressive country that welcomes those in need, not shying away from our international obligations to provide protection for those who are fleeing war and persecution. Equally – if not as important – to make sure that we allow for avenues for Canadians to reunite with their family members and loved ones and also make sure we have mechanisms in place and continue to pay attention to the aspects of immigration that allow us to compete, to get the best and the brightest to Canada, to facilitate their way here.

In order to do that this year in the whole picture we are set to welcome and land 300,000 permanent residents in Canada. That is a historic high and it reflects all those three ambitions that I spoke about. 40,000 of those 300,000 will be refugees, government resettled refugees 25,000, double what the previous government used to invite to Canada, 16,000 privately sponsored refugee spots, almost quadruple what used to exist prior to 2016 and the remainder is asylum seekers who we can never predict based on global migration patterns.

172,000 of that 300,000 are economic immigrants, skilled labour, talent, people who are coming here to scale up their start-up company and make sure we have the environment and the ecosystem to do that. I’ll mention a few of those programs to show you what we’re doing in that regard. Express Entry – 80,000 of the 172,000 skilled immigrants will come through the Express Entry program. This is an objective program that awards points based on age, language proficiency in English or French or both, post-secondary education and work experience.

That program was working really well. Last year we made some reforms to it that have rejigged the system to enable international students to be more advantageously taken care of in the Express Entry program so we can capture and retain more international students who come to study in Canada but decide to remain. Why wouldn’t we want to hang on to these people? These are already people who are proficient in English and French or both and who have a post-secondary education in one of our fine institutions.

The other program is something we have announced as a government. It’s a whole of government approach but will be launched in June, the Global Skill Strategy. It came from listening to many of those in this room who called for government to help in the facilitation of getting talent here very quickly. It has three aspects. One is the global talent stream to enable companies to get people here so they can grow and create even more jobs for Canadians. 

How does that work? It reduces and removes the onerous aspects of the labour market impact assessment and replaces it with a labour market benefit plan so that we look at what this new person is bringing in terms of jobs to this company. The second is a dedicated service channel which already exists in my department whereby if a company tomorrow calls us up and says we want to move our headquarters to Canada, we have the mechanisms in place to get them here in under a month and make sure that all their work permits and everything else is processed in record pace. 

The final one is something that makes sense; that will make it so much easier for border officials to deal with this. It’s short term exemptions for work permits for people who are coming here to do short term consultancy, 15 to 30 days a year, or for highly skilled research by academics in maximum 120 days out of the year.

Why should we require those people to have work permits? We’ll give them an exemption to get them here, do what they have to do and then go back to their particular ecosystem. 

The other one is the Start-up Visa where we identify promising start-ups in conjunction with industry associations and venture capitalists. They designate those people and we give them permanent residency and process them to get here quickly so they can come to Canada, scale up and create more jobs for all of us and prosperity for each one of us.

Finally the program that I love the most, the Atlantic Immigration Program, it was designed by someone in this room that I’ll mention later. This is a program where we sat with the four Atlantic Premiers and we told them, you are facing demographic and labour market challenges. Tell us what immigration program you would like to address those challenges. What would it look like? They literally drafted that program.

They thought we would tinker with it and we didn’t. We just took it and said okay, we’ll do it. Under that program Atlantic Canada will receive 2,000 extra applications; that is 2,000 applications plus their families to bring in intermediate and high skilled labour, no LMI. Part of the problem with Atlantic Canada is not attracting skilled immigrants but retaining them. 90% of skilled immigrants to Ontario stay and 94% stay in Alberta but only 60% stay in Atlantic Canada. What’s unique about this program, it’s the only program in immigration where the employer is responsible for the settlement plan of the skilled immigrants.

Not only is the employer identifying the skilled immigrant they want to bring. In exchange for dropping the LMI requirement we expect them to put together a settlement plan that addresses the needs of that particular skilled immigrant and their family so that it improves the retention rate. When your kids are in school and your spouse has started a business in Nova Scotia, it’s harder for you to just move to Toronto because now you have roots in the community.

The Atlantic Immigration Pilot is working really well now and over 250 companies in Atlantic Canada are participating and have been designated under this program to help with the provinces and working with the settlement agencies on the ground that we fund to provide settlement services. All these things I’m telling you would have been virtually impossible without the historic generosity of Canadians, the ongoing generosity. 

We welcomed as a country refugees from Hungary. Our opening of doors to Vietnamese boat people, 60,000 in the 1970’s was literally the reason why we now have a private sponsorship of refugees. It started from the private sponsorship of Vietnamese boat people. 

The truly national effort we had with respect to Syrian refugees where school children in 2016 were putting lunch money and pooling it together to help a Syrian refugee family, where seniors in a seniors home were pooling their resources together to sponsor a Syrian family, where people were – you know my predecessor John McCallum used to go around the world and Canada and he would say he’s the only Immigration Minister in the world who can’t get refugees fast enough to meet the demand and the generosity of Canadians.

We take these things for granted but it speaks a lot about Canada. The young man that I spoke earlier about on his second day in Canada he was trying to mail a letter to his mother to tell her that he arrived in the middle of a crazy snow storm in Toronto. As he is trying to figure out this red box from Canada Post and wrestling with it and trying to see where the opening is for the mail, it’s not that clear to a new immigrant.

A woman navigating this snowy sidewalk with her baby in a stroller stops, leaves the baby, takes a few seconds to help this young man put that valuable letter in the mailbox. The very next day he tries to go to a laundromat to wash his clothes and someone tells him you need a loonie. He thinks, what’s a loonie? Is it a crazy person? He doesn’t realize a loonie is a piece of currency. Another woman who was doing her laundry also helped him figure out the intricacies of loonies and toonies in Canada.

Quickly enough you see that generosity and you see it all around us. Actually at my head table Jim Estill who donated $1.5 million of his own money to sponsor 50 Syrian refugee families to his community.

What’s amazing about it is he could have put the money to a refugee agency or community service organization and walked away and said I’ve done my part but he didn’t do that. He did it in a very Canadian way. He got interfaith and community groups from all backgrounds and rolled up his sleeves and actually worked with them and made sure that his money had the biggest impact.

Today after speaking to you I find out that it’s not 50 families. It’s now up to 58, so thank you very much for that. The generosity of Canadians has always been there but having spoken about those great programs that are working really well for us and having recognized the generosity of Canadians, does that mean that we are where we want to be in Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada? Absolutely not.

We are not even close. Why do I say that? Because we still have backlogs. In fact the young man I spoke about he works through the system, uses community resources and the settlement agencies to finish high school and work hard but upon finishing high school he can’t go to university. He can’t access student loans. Why? Because he is not yet a permanent resident and he has to wait in immigration limbo for six years because of backlogs, because of slow processing times.

He can’t contribute and integrate properly into Canadian society, not because of anything that he’s doing, but he’s waiting for Citizenship and Immigration Canada to process his permanent residency. That legacy refugee is also there today. There are many legacy refugees who are also waiting from 5 to 6 years now. There are caregivers who are waiting for their permanent residency to be resolved and then there is private sponsored refugees who are in queue, almost 47,000 of them, who are waiting to connect with their sponsoring families.

What have we done to address those backlogs? One of the first things that we did when we formed government was we tackled the backlog in spousal sponsorships because that was a clear irritant in the community. We processed 20,000 backlog spousal cases. It used to take 26 months up to 3 years or more to reunite spouses. We now have a new standard in the vast majority of cases of 12 months or less and most of those cases actually much less than that.

If you wanted to renew your PR card it used to take 10 to 18 months. We are now talking about 54 days and we’re not satisfied with that. We’re going for 14 days. If you look at temporary resident visas, another irritant, the industry standard is now in our department 14 days. Does that mean all the visa offices are there? Absolutely not. But I’ve been visiting a few of them already and I continue to engage to make sure that we bring that down.

I don’t want an international student to go to the UK because his visa took too long. I don’t want someone to defer or deflect or go somewhere else with their investment because they didn’t have fast processing times. One of the key things that blew my mind when I took over this role and I think it will for you is just one stream of immigration, just one that we process is international students. 

Would you believe me if I told you the amount of money that international students put into our economy is more than what we get from the exporting of softwood lumber, from the exporting of wheat, from our financial services and an equal amount of money to our exports of automotive parts. Yet Australia which is not in our hemisphere attracts more Mexican international students than us. We can’t accept that. We can and will do more.

Last year we brought in and approved 367,000 international student visas. That’s a jump of 22% of the previous year so we are doing better but we can do much more. There’s so much room for improvement. Part of it is processing times. Part of it is client service. I went to Germany and the UK and Switzerland. At each stop everyone was raving about our settlement and integration infrastructure, how we do settlement so well. I was happy about that but I thought we could still do better.

For example in Germany I learned how the Germans were taking young refugees, putting them in apprenticeships in skilled trades where the Germans are really good and teaching them for example how to manufacture high speed trains while teaching them the language at the same time, not consecutively like we do. They were doing it concurrently. Is that an idea we can learn from? How do the Swedes do integration better than us, especially for young people?

Those are the kinds of lessons I want to bring back to Canada on our settlement plan. Settlement eats up 40% of IRCC’s budget so we have to ask ourselves can we do better. The only way we can do that is to ask ourselves are we having the maximum impact on that newcomer to enable him or her to restart their lives and succeed in Canada so they can contribute to our common prosperity.

To do that we have to measure data, make sure that all the settlement agencies from the east coast to the west coast to the northern coast have the same vision and collect data in the same way so we can look at outcomes and not just outputs. I also want to acknowledge the fact that when immigrants succeed we all succeed. Historically for the most part when immigrants succeed in Canada they have an overwhelming desire and commitment to this country and they give back.

A number of them, if I were to list them, this lunch would turn into a dinner but I’ll acknowledge a few of them. Hassan Yussuff who is here came from Guyana and speaking about public service, he spent almost 40 years in Canada in public service. He now heads the Canadian Labour Congress. Lois Lawrence, a strong woman from Jamaica who comes to Canada with virtually nothing, uses $5,000 from her Canada Savings Bonds to start a healthcare company that provides employment opportunities for 500 healthcare professionals and healthcare services to thousands of clients.

Mohamad Fakih, a gentleman from Lebanon who came here in his 20’s with nothing but hard work and an entrepreneurial spirit, starts a restaurant business by taking over a failing restaurant location, turns it into a fine Canadian company called Paramount Fine Foods, has now over 60 locations in Canada and is expanding globally in various countries and cities.

Wes Hall, a young man from Jamaica who comes, gets his start as a mailroom clerk and now has created so much wealth and prosperity on Bay Street for many other people. That same young man that I spoke to you earlier now has finished university and is now giving back to his community by volunteering and by tutoring young children in an at risk neighbourhood.

As I talk about immigration and I talk about the things that we’re doing right, as I talk about the generosity of Canadians I want to come back to some of the programing I spoke about earlier, Express Entry, the Start-up Visa. We also recently announced in this year’s budget a targeted employment strategy for newcomers. We want newcomers to hit the ground running so they can use $27.5 million. 

Some of that money will go to assist them to expand pre-arrival services so that skilled immigrants can start the licensing and credential recognition process abroad before they even get here so they can hit the ground running. When they get here a lot of them don’t practice in their fields and so they don’t earn their potential and we lose out on their skills. Why? Because they can’t pay for their exams, they can’t pay the application fees, they can’t support their family.

We are giving them loans in order for them to be able to pay for those exams and those application fees. I’m already meeting dentists and electricians and nurses who have already become professionals in Canada as a result of those loans. The third aspect of that employment strategy for newcomers is creation of paid internships so they can get that valuable Canadian work experience, connecting them with mentors, job matching and so on, pilot programs to see what works.

We’re already seeing a lot of success. A lot of the programs like Express Entry, Global Skills Strategy, the Start-Up visa, the Atlantic Immigration Pilot, all those did not come out of thin air. In fact they didn’t come from our department. It didn’t come from government. It came from the business sector. It came from Canadians, from many people in this room. That’s why it’s important to engage. I’m proud to be part of a government that admits from the get go that we don’t have all the answers, that we have to engage with Canadians to make sure we get feedback from everyone on the ground.

Throughout this talk I was telling you about the young man who came to Canada on a perilous journey with conflicting emotions, a lot of fear of this distant and unknown land but a lot of hope for this young person’s future, for themselves and their families and hope for a new beginning which a lot of new immigrants have, newcomers. That young man then turned around and benefits immensely almost from day one from the generosity of Canadians, from the generosity of our community services and sees that as something that is an example to him and gives back in spades after he is settled and integrated into Canada.

Ladies and gentlemen, my name is Ahmed Hussen and I’m that young man and I took that long journey to get to this place where now historically I’m leading the very department that I was once a client of so many years ago.

I can tell you – I’m sorry to break it to you. My story is not unique. There’s millions of newcomers that have a similar story. When people credit me abroad and say wow, you did all this. I say no, the credit goes to Canada because only in a country like Canada is my story and other stories possible. As I go back to Express Entry and Global Skills and all the money making business initiatives I want to tell you that we need you in this room to keep challenging us, to keep pushing those innovative ideas that work for you.

What do you need to grow your business, to grow the economy, to create jobs for all of us? I have a great team here. One of them is Bernie Derible, could you stand up please. 

Bernie is the gentleman who singlehandedly designed the Atlantic Immigration Program. I have Tia, Zubair, and Christine Whitten who are also here. Could you please stand?

Please reach out to these individuals. I want you to ask them questions, give them feedback. I commit to you that I will listen to those ideas. We’ll continue to remain innovative and creative but we can’t do that without your input. You are the ones who go through the challenges of getting someone here, the need for skilled immigrants, the need for that consultant who can turn your company around and grow your business.

You’re the ones who know how and when and exactly in what manner we should do that and what kind of immigration programs we should have in place to do that. We need your response. We need to do this together. I commit to you that as a department I will continue to be hungry for better processing times, for better client service, for a better experience. I want you to experience the immigration department in a pleasant manner.

The forms, the 1-800 number, everything should be a pleasant experience and something that facilitates the creation of talent and investment and skills into Canada. As we do that we have to remember it’s only through that partnership of industry, business, Canadian settlement agencies, ordinary Canadians and the federal government that we can continue to have and enjoy having an immigration system that will continue to be a key ingredient in our economic success, economic growth but also our common prosperity, your prosperity and mine. Thank you very much.

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