Speaking notes for Ahmed Hussen, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship at the Conference Board of Canada’s Canadian Immigration Summit
May 9, 2017
Thank you for that kind and brief introduction. I’d like to begin by thanking all of you here for being here today, and thanking the Conference Board of Canada for helping guide national discussions on immigration with your insightful research. I’d also like to acknowledge the presence of my provincial colleagues from Quebec, New Brunswick, and Ontario. Thank you very much for attending.
I must say that we work very, very closely on the federal level with our provincial counterparts, and we have open conversations on all things related to immigration, both the challenges and the opportunities. And I’ll go into a little bit of detail in my speech.
This summit brings together representatives from all sectors of Canadian society, therefore it’s an excellent opportunity to further advance our national dialogue on various immigration topics. And I’m very honoured to lend my voice to these discussions today. As we celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday, we’re given an opportunity to reflect on our country’s history and the generations of Canadians who’ve made Canada the country that it is today. And of course Canada’s history is tied up with immigration. Our country was built by generations of families who have come to our country in search of better opportunities. And in turn, people from all over the world have made Canada a better place. Since Confederation, we’ve had wave after wave of immigrants from Europe, Asia, and all across the world, who have built this country one road, one school, one bank, one business, one hospital, one theatre, one church, mosque and synagogue at a time. Throughout our history, the successes of our immigration system have largely been the result of the generosity and kindness and the welcoming nature that Canadians have given newcomers.
And I must emphasize that this is something that we take for granted but is lauded all over the world, that we are a country that not only accepts newcomers but integrates them better than many countries in the world. And I want to point to a particular example that I keep hearing about as I travel outside of Canada, which is our effort to welcome thousands and thousands – more than 60,000 – Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s. Between 1975 to 1979, more than 60,000 Vietnamese made Canada their new home. And the innovation that occurred at that time was that the churches, faith groups, and community organizations stepped up and privately sponsored these refugees.
And that was the beginning of the Canadian private sponsorship of refugees that is now being sought after by many, many countries in the world. They’re saying teach us how you do this. They really love our PSR model, and it’s why we have partnered with the UNHCR, the Open Society Foundations, the Radcliffe Foundation, and the University of Ottawa to recently launch the Global Private Sponsorship Refugee Initiative. And because of that Canadian leadership, and because of that example that came from the Vietnamese boat people, we now have countries that have not been engaged with refugee resettlement explore that option through private sponsorship of refugees – countries like Argentina, Brazil, Chile, even the United Kingdom. They’ve moved from being interested in the private sponsorship of refugees, but now they’ve actually had a pilot program and they’re moving to phase two. Germany and many other countries have done the same. The United Arab Emirates was here last year in December to learn about our private sponsorship of refugees, and now they’ve committed to taking in 15,000 privately sponsored refugees in the UAE. So through our leadership, we’re not only setting an example for the world but we’re actually encouraging other countries to resettle more refugees and explore different models that we have tested over decades.
More recently, you can see the truly national effort that resulted from our ability to resettle more than 40,000 Syrian refugees in Canada. That could never have been done by the Government of Canada alone, or by the provincial governments. It was done completely by us but with the help of the provincial, municipal, and community and even the private sector. There were a lot of donations, and in-kind and monetary donations that were given by the private sector. It was a truly national effort. And seniors in a seniors’ home, for example, pooled their resources together to sponsor one family. Kids at a school would have bake sales to sponsor one family. And that generosity rescued many, many people from the brutality of war and persecution.
And again, we often take these things for granted, but it speaks a lot about Canada and who we are as a country, our country’s history of openness and inclusion. And as a result of that, we are now one of the most diverse countries in the world. And as our Prime Minister has constantly said, we’re stronger because of that diversity, not in spite of it.
Our country’s success with immigration has also had some challenges as a well. We now face international challenges that didn’t exist in the past. We have more people in need of protection than ever before. More than 20 million refugees are seeking protection and sanctuary. More than 65 million people are displaced within their own countries, so they’re internally displaced people. And so we can’t take everybody. But what we can do is we can share our track record of being able to welcome those in need, but also enable other countries to share in the responsibility of providing resettlement for refugees.
But more so than refugee resettlement, our immigration system is, on the most part, geared towards helping us use immigration as a key ingredient in our economic growth and the creation of prosperity for all of us. And so as the Conference Board of Canada put it, growing Canada’s population through immigration boosts economic growth and softens the economic burden of a rapidly aging population and lower birth rates. Although we’re an extremely attractive destination, more and more countries are also using immigration as a tool for economic growth. Source countries for immigrants such as India and China are now having rapidly expanding economies, and therefore creating opportunities right at home for their best young and educated citizens. So we must maintain our openness that welcomes those in need, but we also must ensure that the programs that we have in place in immigration will allow us to continue to win in the global race for talent.
Canada’s economic immigration programs are well positioned to attract the best and the brightest. But we have to be able to be nimble and constantly innovate because other countries are also coming on board. For example, the Start-up Visa. When we started this – when the previous government started the Start-up Visa – which is a great program that has attracted promising entrepreneurs to Canada to expand and scale up and create jobs for Canadians – we were the only country that were doing that. Now Denmark, Australia, and others are coming on board and competing with us through that program.
The Express Entry Program is another one in our economic toolbox in immigration that allows us to identify the best and the brightest in the world and invite them to become permanent residents of Canada. And we continue to make improvements in the Express Entry Program in order to deal with the current realities of the global talent pool. So for example, we’re making it easier for professionals, skilled workers, and international students, who already have experience living in Canada, to get more points so that we can allow those who are already established in Canada to remain here and share their skills with us.
The Global Skills Strategy is another program that came directly from businesses, who had asked us to help facilitate the movement of temporary, high-skilled workers into Canada. Through this program, which will launch and execute in June 2017, we will get highly skilled temporary workers faster by processing their work permits and visas in only two weeks. We will waive the requirement for a work permit for temporary workers who are coming for short periods of time to do a short-term consultancy, for example, or a leadership conference. We’re also launching a dedicated service channel to assist high-growth foreign companies making significant job-creating investments in Canada. We will actually help them navigate the immigration process so that they can get their headquarters here. In the long term, many of the highly skilled workers who will come through the Global Skills Strategy may wish to remain permanently in Canada, and we will invite them to apply through the Express Entry Program, and we’re making other key changes in the Express Entry Program to allow them to do that.
But that’s not the only thing. We are constantly testing out and piloting new programs to see how they work, and we’re not afraid to launch these pilots. If they fail, at least we tried. But if they succeed, we can replicate those successes across the country. And an example of an innovative pilot program is the Atlantic Immigration Pilot Program. This is the only immigration program that is completely led by employers. Employers get to recruit intermediate and high-skilled workers in all four Atlantic position, but they’re doing something that we’ve never asked employers to do. We are asking the employers to get involved in the settlement process for the skilled immigrant and their family. Why would employers do that? Why would they invest in putting together a settlement plan? Well, in return what they get is a waiver for the LMIA. They don’t need to submit a Labour Market Impact Assessment. And so employers have been enthusiastically embracing this program. It is geared towards the demographic and labour market challenges of Atlantic Canada, and it is flexible enough to be adapted differently in each province in Atlantic Canada.
And it deals with the direct challenge of not so much attracting highly-skilled immigrants into Atlantic Canada, but retaining them. So in Atlantic Canada, in the rest of the country, so in Ontario, for example, when a skilled immigrant lands in Ontario, the retention rate is 90 percent. In Alberta it’s over 93 percent. In Atlantic Canada it’s around 60 percent. And so the Atlantic Immigration Pilot Program is not only geared towards attracting those skilled immigrants into Atlantic Canada, but, by involving the employer in the settlement process, enabling the children of the skilled immigrant, for example, to be assisted with finding the right schools, maybe giving an idea for the spouse to start a local business, putting more roots into the community, working harder to create a welcoming atmosphere for the skilled immigrant and their family, we hope that that will improve the retention rate in Atlantic Canada.
And through this program, we’re giving Atlantic Canada 2000 applications. That’s 2000 applications plus their families. Now, if this three-year pilot works really well – and it’s already promising – there’s already more than 250 employers who are designated under this program, and more are coming on board. If this works out, there’s nothing stopping us from increasing the number of applications that we award to Atlantic Canada, but also taking those lessons from Atlantic Canada and applying them to more provinces that have the same or similar challenges.
The issue of settlement and integration of newcomers is not only limited to refugees. The vast majority of the landings that we will have this year, and in previous years that we’ve had in Canada, are in the economic class. So the integration and the settlement of newcomers is critically important because the faster we can do that, the faster that those newcomers can get into the labour market and help us grow as a country and contribute to our common prosperity. So some of the things that we are happy to look at include: how do we deliver language programs, can we do better there; can we do settlement and integration better; is there a way to combine work and language training, for example, in a way that, for example, the Germans have done. And so we’re looking at the settlement and integration area very closely, and we are exploring new approaches in this area through the examination of comprehensive data that we will collect over the next few months.
And the last point I want to make is a key theme that runs through everything that is in my mandate letter. And you can look it up; it’s public. It’s client service. Simply put, as the Immigration Department, we have to do better with respect to our clients. Putting our clients at the heart of everything that we do will ensure that everything else works out. In other words, if we look at the client as being central to everything that we do, processing times will become a priority for us. So we will have to drop processing times across all streams of immigration.
Second, how do you navigate the immigration system? We want every Canadian and every foreign national who navigates our website to have a pleasant experience. We don’t want them to walk away frustrated. We want anyone who calls our 1-800 number not to be put on hold for a long time, and to get real answers to their real questions. We want to make sure that filling the immigration forms for any stream of immigration does not require a PhD. We want to make sure that it’s not just the outcomes, but that people are kept in the loop with respect to each and every stage of their application process. Because part of what we’ve found is it’s not so much the waiting that bothers people; it’s not knowing the progress of their file.
But we are making progress. When we came into government, the spousal program, the Family Class Program, had a waiting period of over 26 months, sometimes as high as three years or more. We dramatically attacked not only the processing time for the spousal – it’s now less than 12 months – but we also attacked the backlog in that program. And now we were able to eliminate 20,000 spousal cases and reunite families so that people can have better outcomes in Canada.
On the PR card renewals, it used to take between ten to 18 months to do that. It now takes 54 days. And we are not satisfied, and our goal is to go down to at least 14 days. If you look at temporary resident visa applications, although we have more and more volumes each and every year, there’s an increase in all streams, specifically on temporary resident visas, we used to take a lot of days and we still have a long time to go, but the industry standard in IRCC is now 14 days.
So having said that, client service is not just about processing times and reducing backlogs, even though that’s the main thing that we hear from our clients, but it’s also about innovation. How can we do things better, how can we do things faster, how can we collaborate across different streams to reduce the pressures that we have? As we grapple with more and more people wanting to visit Canada for tourism, for family reunification, for temporary periods, but also permanently immigrate, business travellers and others, how can we innovate within our pool of resources to make sure that our client service improves while we’re dealing with this massive increase in volumes?
Just to give you a quick example, on the international student line just from one country, in India, from January 2017 to March 2017 we had the same amount of applications that we had last year from January to July. There’s a huge increase in China, in many countries, even in faraway missions that we normally haven’t had that much activity. And I must say, for international students, we have to do better. Australia is attracting more Mexican international students, even though Mexico is in our hemisphere. So we can do better. We have done better in terms of the volumes. They’re going up. We issued 367,000 international student visas in 2016. That’s a jump of 22 percent, but the opportunity to grow is much, much more. Countries in the Gulf region and in South America and Asia are telling us that they could easily send more international students to us. So we have to look at that area as an area of improvement, and how Immigration and Refugees Citizenship Canada processes those applications has a direct bearing on our ability to increase those international students coming to Canada.
But we don’t want them to just come to Canada; we want as many of them as possible to remain in Canada because these are people who have gotten an education here, who speak one or both of our official languages. And so we’re making changes in the Express Entry Program to give more points to former international students who studied in Canada, or those who studied in Canada and are still in this country working or doing something else. So we’re giving them more points and making sure that we keep them and we keep their skills and their talents.
And so I believe that we have a long way to go. We’ve done a lot in terms of client service, we’ve done a lot in terms of re-examining settlement and making sure that Canada continues to be a country that is open to newcomers, not only those seeking protection but equally importantly, those who are coming here to share their skills and their talents with us. But to do so, it has never been a government effort; it’s always been a team effort with NGOs, with the private sector, with ordinary Canadians, and with different orders of government. And as we do that, we have to remember that we don’t have a choice. We don’t have a choice because in this global race for talent, if we’re not nimble, if we’re not constantly asking ourselves how we can innovate and put together not only new programs but tweak and re-examine existing immigration programs, and doing that constantly, we will lose out on that race, and we have to make sure that we stay ahead of that.
I want to end on one last point, which really illustrates for me the generosity of Canadians. Two weeks ago, about three weeks ago, I was in my constituency office and I had a meeting with people who took the journey from Vietnam to Canada to seek refuge here, and their descendants. And they came into my office and we introduced each other and so on, and they said we’re former Vietnamese refugees who are now Canadian. And they said we’ve come to see you and we just have one request. And I said what is that? And they said we need your help, because you’re the Immigration Minister, to show us how we can help Syrian refugees. To me, that just embodied what we have been able to do in Canada. We have something special. But I think that that generosity and that welcoming nature has served us well, but I think we shouldn’t take it for granted. We should encourage it. We should build more avenues for ordinary citizens to get involved in not only welcoming newcomers but settling them and integrating them. And I think we’ll be a better country as a result. We already are, and we’ll continue to do so. And many of you present in this room have had a role in our ability to use immigration as a great ingredient. It’s not the only ingredient, but it’s a great ingredient in our economic growth and development.
So as you continue your conference today, I ask that you consider the fact that immigration – the attraction and retention of skilled immigrants to Canada – is needed now more than ever, and that what we do moving forward in terms of client service, in terms of the economic programs that we have in place, will determine what kind of economic growth that we have and how we address our coming demographic challenges. Thank you very much.
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