The Honourable Marco Mendicino, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship addresses the Canadian Club of Ottawa

Speech

Keynote address at the Canadian Club of Ottawa
Ottawa, Ontario
May 12, 2021

As delivered

Good afternoon and as we begin I would like to acknowledge that I’m joining you from the traditional territory of the Mississaugas of the Credit.

I hope you are all doing well with the arrival of spring and vaccines. After a very difficult year, I am hoping that better days lie ahead for all of us.

I only wish we could be doing this in person, although I wish as well that I could get a haircut before I see you all in person. I’m sure many of you can relate. I do want to thank the Canadian Club for the invitation and for providing a platform to have the kind of thought-provoking conversation about the big issues of our times.

And for Canada any serious list of the big issues of our time must include how we can continue to increase our growth and prosperity through immigration. As we set sail on today’s discussion, let’s get our bearings. This past year has been a tempest. We have faced stormy seas, not only in government but equally in business and indeed in every aspect of life. Yet even as we have seen wave after wave of the pandemic, we’ve kept our eyes on the horizon and our ship pointed in the right direction.

Despite the many disruptions caused by COVID-19, we have kept immigration corridors open which are vital to our economy by introducing rigorous and effective health protocols at the border. We started with essential workers, in particular focusing on the healthcare and agricultural sectors. We’ve worked very closely with provinces and the education sector to devise a responsible plan backed by evidence that has allowed us to keep corridors open for international students to safely return to campuses across the country. Their contributions are not merely economic, but they also add to our social fabric. And indeed we have created pathways to help families reunite with their loved ones during these very difficult times.

And finally as the world continues to face a migration crisis that has reached approximately 80 million people, we have continued to resettle the world’s most urgent cases, those who are fleeing war, conflict and persecution. And I would highlight a number of initiatives for example the introduction of our Guardian Angels program which has allowed for a pathway for asylum seekers who helped in our hospitals and in our long-term care homes, not only in Québec but right across the country. I would point to the progress that we are making in extending status to those protected persons here in Canada. And most recently I expanded the definition of family to allow for a greater number of Yazidi refugees fleeing Daesh to be reunited with their loved ones.

These initiatives taken together have allowed Canada to remain the number one country in the world for refugee resettlement. Indeed United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, my friend Filippo Grandi, has called Canada “a bright light in a horrible year for refugee resettlement”.

Now this work has not been easy and others may have charted different courses. But in Canada we know that we have a unique opportunity to put up our sail so that we can catch a wave of talent, skill and experience from around the world that will drive our economy forward. And that sail is immigration. Last fall I unveiled our 2021 to 2023 Immigration Levels Plan which aims to help Canada bounce back from the impact of the pandemic by welcoming 401,000 new permanent residents this year. We have made significant strides towards meeting that goal.

In February, we held the largest ever Express Entry draw. We invited 27,000 people who are already here, working hard, to apply for permanent residence. Throughout the pandemic, refugee protection claimants have done amazing work in our hospitals and long-term care facilities. They will now have a pathway to permanent residency under the Guardian Angels program. We want young people (inaudible) who are looking abroad to choose Canada. This is why we have launched an immigration program to help Hong Kong residents come to Canada.

And last month we hoisted our biggest sail yet; a new path to permanent residency for 90,000 essential workers and recent international student graduates. The size, speed and scope of this initiative is unprecedented. It will support workers with temporary status in sectors like the healthcare and over 100 key supporting occupations from bricklayers to bus drivers as well as recent international student graduates. And the kicker is that these newcomers are already in Canada and giving back. They’re hard at work in some of the most important sectors of our economy.

By giving them this pathway to permanent residency, we are opening up a pathway to prosperity for all Canadians. And the early results of this program are very strong. In less than a week we have already accepted applications for over 50,000 newcomers, which is well over halfway of the mark that we have set. And I’m looking forward to seeing stronger results still.

We’re on the right course and we’ve raised our sails. We’re bringing aboard the right passengers, the best and the brightest from around the world. Now what about the vessel that is our immigration system? Traditionally as many of you know we have resorted to paper-based processes. And as we have raised our levels this has indeed led to challenges with capacity and processing times which were exacerbated by the pandemic. The truth is going forward we need to retire these paper-based systems because they are well past their best before day.

I am willing to bet that almost none of your businesses are still paper-based.

So we’re seizing this opportunity to shed or shred the paper and move towards a modern digital immigration system.

The importance of immigration for Canada makes modernizing the system necessary.

But I’m not just talking about upgrading software. This is going to be a transformational change in the way that we do immigration, one where everyone can apply online and check back to get regular timely updates on the status of their application. Those applying for permanent residence from within Canada will be able to have it confirmed without needing an in-person meeting. International students will complete a single digital application that is tailored to their specific needs, eliminating the need to complete multiple generic forms. New Canadians will be able to complete their citizenship tests online and take their oath in an online ceremony with loved ones tuning into watch from around the world.

Some of these innovations have already begun. Over the past year, over 55,000 new Canadians have taken the citizenship oath at some 9,000 virtual ceremonies. And having been to a few of them myself I can say they’re still very special. And I can recall in particular the Canada Day ceremony that we did last July 1st. It was a ceremony that saw us welcome new members of our citizenship family from coast to coast to coast simultaneously. And what we’re demonstrating is that by continuing to leverage technology and innovate and getting creative that we can continue to make strides in immigration in all of our processes, but not just for the sake of technology but for changing lives by providing more opportunity and strengthening that prosperity that I spoke about.

As was the case in many organizations around the world, the changes that we were already in the process of implementing were accelerated by the pandemic. In short, we had to adapt. And we did.

The reality is that right now our immigration system has been one that has been bogged down by paper. We need to change that. The technology is behind the times. And it depends on several dated IT platforms around the world. Our most important one, some of our partners in the immigration ecosystem may be very familiar with is the Global Case Management System, or GCMS. And as you all know it is doing its job, but it’s aging fast. As we chart a course for our post-pandemic recovery we must continue to accelerate the modernization of this platform and bring ourselves firmly into the 21st century.

IRCC’s long-term goal has always been the same; to transform into a truly digital organization so we can continue to maximize our immigration systems, advantages and benefits for our clients and aspiring new Canadians. And last month we made a big down payment towards that vision. Budget 2021 commits over 800 million dollars to create a new digital platform to replace the GCMS. It will help us process cases more quickly and efficiently, meaning that applications will move faster and aspiring Canadians can start to contribute to their communities sooner.

Applicants will have access to a sustainable, user-friendly service and to information about the status of their applications in real time, anywhere, any time.

As we continue to welcome more new Canadians, this new state-of-the-art platform will ensure that our immigration system can efficiently handle the increasing number of cases. It’s the cornerstone of our new, modern immigration system. An immigration system that helps the best and the brightest to ply their trade in Canada. A system that supports economic growth and creates good local jobs in communities across the country. A system that helps Canada to reach its full potential.

An immigration system that instills trust by having it address the many questions of visitors, immigrants and refugees and issues raised by those who are newly settled.

But modernizing immigration doesn’t just mean new technology. It means new people coming from new places too. With borders and travels restricted traditional immigration has never been more challenging. But at the same time the pandemic has shone a bright light on the contributions of many newcomers who’d been overlooked for far too long. First; new places. When people think of immigration they picture new Canadians landing at Pearson Airport. But what if I told you that many of the people that we want to immigrate to Canada are already here? And this is what we call domestic temporary immigration.

With travel restrictions being necessary and firmly in place, we need to help those who are already here in Canada achieve permanent status and this is a central part of our strategy.

These temporary workers, international students and refugee protection claimants are already here and (inaudible).

And we’re engaging them with an array of programs. And I’ve already mentioned one, most notably the new pathway for 90,000 essential workers and recent international student graduates. By helping them to obtain permanent status we’re also encouraging them to put down roots and to make even greater contributions in our communities right across the country. As I often say; their status is temporary but their contributions are long-lasting and we want them to stay.

Second; new people. Over the past year, we have come to appreciate the true meaning of the word “essential.” Essential workers have saved lives in our communities and have helped to ensure that Canadian families have continued to have access to necessities.

A glaring truth that I think has hit home for many of us in this past year in particular is that the jobs that we have conventionally referred to as being low-skilled are in fact essential. From caring for our seniors to putting food on our tables, people have awoken to the reality that these supposedly low-skilled jobs are actually anything but.

Our front-line workers—whether they are working in our hospitals, taking care of our elderly or helping to put food on our tables—are everyday heroes.

Our new programs are broader than ever, encompassing everyone from carpenters to cashiers. With these new initiatives we do more than express our gratitude; we’re actively demonstrating it. And equally important we’re spurring a broader shift in how society sees these jobs and the people who do them. I hope that a generation from now Canadians will look back on this moment as a time when we begin to better recognize and appreciate the value of this work and an immigration policy that reflected it.

Immigration has helped to get us through the pandemic. And it’s also going to help accelerate our recovery out of it. Over the past year newcomers have made an outsized contribution to Canada’s fight against COVID-19. You can think of this with big stats like the fact that one in three doctors and pharmacists is an immigrant, is a newcomer.

But you can also think of this in terms (inaudible) of individual contributions to this great collective undertaking.

People like Christian Bseliss , a 26-year old Syrian refugee who settled in Aurora, Ontario just a few years ago. When COVID hit, our supply of PPE was extremely limited. And it seemed like the entire world was trying to get their hands on it. Christian said it hurt him to hear that of those who are on the frontline were at risk because of a lack of supply in PPE. And Christian took it upon himself to act. He asked his boss if he could use their 3-D printers and made face shields for frontline workers. This led to helping found the Ontario Personal Protective Equipment Coalition, a group of people working literally 24 hours a day around the clock to produce our PPE to better protect our frontline workers.

“In Canada the term refugee never stopped me from doing anything”, Christian said proudly. And I’d like to thank Christian.

As I conclude, I want to return to the beginning of my remarks. While the pandemic has presented some stormy seas for us all, it has also taught us some important lessons. We need to be all hands on deck. The more sails we rise, the faster our ship goes. And we can only get to where we need to go if we can help everyone row in the same direction. And while we are facing unchartered waters ahead, we can batten down the hatches, fix the hull, and be ready to face whatever challenges lie on our horizon.

While much has changed over the past year, one reality remains unchanged, namely, that immigration continues to be essential to Canada’s future.

Because Canada can only reach its full potential when everyone here reaches theirs.

Thank you.

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