ARCHIVED – Speaking notes for The Honourable Jason Kenney, P.C., M.P. Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism

At the Economic Club of Canada Event

Ottawa, March 7, 2012

Check against delivery

Thank you all for coming, and thank you to the Economic Club of Canada for providing a valuable forum in which to discuss important issues of public policy.

This is my third opportunity in the past year and a half to address members of the Economic Club, and I am very pleased to speak about an issue that is central to our country’s economic prospects: The fair and effective management of Canada’s immigration system.

I like to say that “Immigration is the sincerest form of flattery”.

Indeed, when we contemplate the sheer number of people from around the world that would like to move to our country – at least 2 billion people, according to a 2010 Ipsos poll – Canadians should be proud that this country stands as such a beacon to so much of the world.

Canada is that beacon thanks to our tradition of ordered liberty, and because our market economy offers opportunities for those who want to work hard.

Because so many people from around the world want to come to Canada, it is critical that our immigration system functions fairly, effectively, and in the best interests of Canada.

Canadians are understandably concerned about how the uncertain global economy will affect not only our country’s future, but also their family finances, their jobs, their investments, and their businesses.

At the same time, there are some indications that Canadians are feeling cautiously optimistic about the future.  In fact, an Ipsos Reid poll of Canadians released at the very beginning of this year found that 88 per cent of respondents anticipated 2012 would be a good year for them.

Why?  One explanation may be that Canada has weathered the economic storm of the last few years better than most advanced economies.

The rest of the world has noticed our accomplishments:

  • Both the IMF and the OECD forecast that Canada will have some of the strongest economic growth in the G7 over this year and next.
  • For the fourth year in a row, the World Economic Forum rated Canada’s banking system as the world’s soundest.
  • In its annual review of the best countries for business, Forbes magazine ranked Canada as number one.
  • And three credit-rating agencies – Moody’s, Fitch and Standard and Poor’s – reaffirmed their top ratings for Canada.

For our part, the Government of Canada is committed to sticking with our low-tax plan for jobs and growth. We introduced Canada’s Economic Action Plan three years ago, in the midst of a global recession. Since that time, Canada has recovered more than all of the output and more than all of the jobs lost during that recession.

All of this good news should not distract us from the very real challenges we still face. The global economy has slowed, and there remain risks to the short-term outlook, particularly from the situation in Europe. Canada is not immune to these international developments.

That is why our Government’s economic leadership will continue as we implement Economic Action Plan 2012.

The Prime Minister was clear in outlining our approach in Davos, when he said:

“We did not reduce immigration or give in to protectionism. Instead, we have maintained the highest levels of immigration that our aging labour force of the future will require”

“We will ensure that, while we respect our humanitarian obligations and family reunification objectives, we make our economic needs the central goal of our immigration efforts in the future”

And how does immigration fit into the Government’s economic focus?

In my view, it fits naturally.

Immigration is vital to Canada’s long-term economic health and to our international competitiveness.

Those of you in this room who are immigrants yourselves, or who are the children of immigrants, or who employ immigrants, or who are employed by immigrants, know from experience this is true.

Even in a time of global economic uncertainty, Canada still needs a robust immigration system to keep our workforce strong.

As with other countries with aging populations and low birth rates, in the not-too-distant future, Canada will not have enough people to keep our workforce growing. With Baby Boomers beginning to retire, our economy now relies increasingly on immigration for labour force growth. In fact, we are already facing large and growing labour shortages. Based on current trends, many studies have estimated a shortage of hundreds of thousands of workers within a decade.

Canada has welcomed an annual average of 254,000 immigrants since 2006.  This is the highest sustained level of immigration in Canadian history.

To ensure that immigration will fuel our future prosperity, we need to select immigrants who are ready, willing, and able to integrate into Canada’s labour market and fill roles in our economy where we have existing skills shortages. We have to make sure the skilled immigrants we choose are the ones Canada needs, and are the most likely to succeed when they get here, rather than being underemployed, stuck in survival jobs.

We have a number of programs that are designed to do just that.  For example, we have introduced a program called the Canadian Experience Class, which provides a straightforward process for retaining both high skilled Temporary Foreign Workers, as well as international students who graduate from Canadian colleges and universities and have already demonstrated that they have what it takes to succeed in Canada.

We also have Provincial Nominee Programs, where we work with our partners in Canada’s provinces and territories to help identify acute job-market demands in their jurisdictions and fill them with qualified immigrants. This has led to a much better distribution of newcomers across Canada. For example, immigration to the prairies has tripled over the past few years.

There are several other economic immigration programs, but the largest one we run is the Federal Skilled Workers Program, which is the main avenue to permanent immigration to Canada.  Its raison d’être is to select immigrants with flexible skills to become economically established in Canada.

Flexibility and adaptability to changing job markets will be key to success in the Canadian economy of the future.

There was a time when we didn’t appreciate that enough in this country. One example: During the IT boom of the 1990s, we welcomed many immigrants to Canada who had very specific IT skills, and they thrived here as long as the boom lasted. But when the bubble burst, they were lost in the new job market. They didn’t have skills that were adaptable to changing economic realities.

So now, when it comes to our Federal Skilled Workers Program, we do things differently and better than before.

We now evaluate all applicants to this program on a modernized grid that better captures what we broadly call human capital, which measures the long-term potential of economic immigrants in an increasingly complex labour market and a knowledge-based economy.

This grid weighs the points accorded for criteria such as Official Language ability, education, work experience, and age, so as to ensure those arriving will have the full skill set needed to adapt to changing circumstances in a modern economy.

In 2010, we completed an extensive evaluation of the Federal Skilled Workers Program. It showed that, on the whole, the program is working well and selecting immigrants who perform well economically. It also showed that selecting applicants based on human capital criteria has led to improved outcomes.

The report found that 89 per cent of federal skilled workers were employed or self-employed three years after arriving. As well, 95 per cent of employers surveyed indicated that federal skilled workers were meeting or exceeding their expectations. The evaluation showed a strong and continuing need for skilled immigrants in Canada.

Here is what is most impressive: we also found that those skilled workers who already had a job waiting for them on arrival in Canada were earning, on average, an annual salary of more than $79,000 after three years, well above the average Canadian salary.

This means that our arranged employment stream under the Federal Skilled Workers Program is a huge success. But with only a few thousand employers using it, I know we need to do more and work better with Canadian employers to promote it.

Because the Federal Skilled Workers Program is so important to our immigration goals, we regularly look at how well it works and how it can function more fairly and more effectively. It is all part of our ongoing efforts to modernize our immigration system to make it even more nimble and responsive to labour market needs.

As part of our ongoing efforts, we conducted nationwide consultations last year on proposals to improve the program further. We received a lot of helpful feedback. Based on this, we are considering a number of changes to the human capital criteria we use to evaluate potential immigrants.

For example, since proficiency in English or French is one of the most important determinants of an immigrant’s future economic success in Canada, we are looking at the possibility of introducing minimum Official Language thresholds for applicants, and giving English or French proficiency more weight in determining successful applications.

Another change we are considering is giving more points to younger applicants, who will be active members of the Canadian workforce for much longer than older immigrants. We are looking at the possibility of changing the system to favour those who will make a contribution to the Canadian economy over a longer term.

I said right at the outset of this speech that it is critical for our immigration system to function fairly, effectively and in a way that best responds to Canada’s interests.  I am proud of the changes we have put in place over the last few years that have improved that system.

But challenges remain.

For the immigration system in general – and especially for the skilled worker program – possibly the biggest challenge is the large backlog of applications that have accumulated in the system. A huge chunk of that backlog pre-dates the recent changes I have mentioned.

So we are left with many applicants who initially applied under older criteria which were not as responsive to Canada’s changing economic needs.

We are grappling with the best way to eliminate that backlog. We have managed to make some progress, but until it is completely gone, we can’t get to where our economic immigration system needs to be.

We welcome all creative ideas that will help us eliminate the backlog better and faster.

The fact is that backlogs simply are not fair. They are unfair to the applicants themselves, who must wait for years for a decision on whether or not they can come to Canada, with all of the frustrations and life pressures that entails.

Backlogs are also unfair to Canadian society in general. They hurt our economy. We need fast and straightforward procedures to help ensure Canada remains a destination of choice for top talent.

Backlogs slow down the system and make it much less effective and much less responsive to rapidly changing labour market needs. There are people from all over the world with skills our economy needs now, and they want to come to Canada now. But we can’t welcome them now if we are busy processing people who have skills we needed five years ago, or may not have needed even back then.

And if we agree that it is in our national interest to welcome younger skilled immigrants to Canada, then making applicants wait in line for years works against that interest.

If our processing system is slower than the pace of change of the labour market, then we risk finding ourselves in a situation where we may be rewarding the longest-standing applicants over the best applicants.

We recognized the backlog problem several years back, and have taken actions to eliminate it as quickly as possible, including our 2008 Action Plan for Faster Immigration. We’ve made some progress on that.

In 2008, we had a backlog of more than 640,000 people in the Federal Skilled Worker Program. If we had not acted, that number would have swelled to more than 800,000 by today, with wait times in excess of seven years. Instead, as of June of last year, there were roughly 480,000 applicants in line. We celebrated an important milestone last year when the number of federal skilled worker applications received before February 2008 was reduced by more than 50 per cent – two years ahead of schedule.

But to put all that in perspective, we plan to welcome 55,000 to 57,000 Federal Skilled Workers into Canada this year. That’s a considerable amount, but it is only a small portion of the backlog. If current admission rates remain steady, the remaining backlog will not be eliminated before 2017.

We are exploring ways to reduce the backlog further. For example, we are launching a pilot project that will allow provinces and territories to “mine the backlog” – in other words, to review the applications in the backlog and nominate those applicants they think their economies need now. We are also informing some applicants stuck in the federal skilled workers backlog about possible opportunities under the Provincial Nominee Program.

We are also considering ways to obtain consent from applicants in the backlog to be considered directly by Canadian employers for employment. With job offers in hand, applicants would see their applications processed on a priority basis.

New Zealand and Australia – countries with immigration systems similar to ours – have already gone even further and introduced changes to their systems that make them nimbler, more flexible and more reflective of modern labour-market realities than what came before.

New Zealand legislated an end to its backlog in 2003 and put in place a system where prospective applicants can be selected from a pool made up of all persons who have applied.  Rather than wasting time and energy processing old applications, their resources can now be put towards actively matching the best qualified applicants to current economic needs.

In recent months, Prime Minister Harper has spoken about doing more in the economy of the future than just passively accepting applications. He has talked about the need to actively recruit people to come to Canada to fill specific skills shortages.

There are exciting possibilities before us when it comes to the future of economic immigration to Canada. But of course, the first step is to eliminate this unfair backlog as soon as we can. Again, we are open to all creative suggestions about the best way to do it.

In fact, in my remaining minutes with you, I would like to speak more broadly about our public consultations and how employers can become more proactively involved in the economic immigration system.

Many of you here today are employers yourselves, and you know better than anyone how important it is for our rapidly-changing economy that our immigration system remains responsive to our labour market needs.

You have a role to play in ensuring that it does, and we welcome your involvement.

I am always eager to consult with those who have first-hand knowledge of the economic impacts of our immigration policies. I am always pleased to see employers who are actively engaged in integrating skilled workers into Canadian society.

In fact, my Deputy Minister, Neil Yeates, has begun a series of face-to-face roundtable meetings with employers across the country in recent weeks. This is part of Citizenship and Immigration Canada’s efforts to ensure our economic immigration initiatives are always in sync with employers’ needs in every part of the country.

I believe it is important for the Government of Canada to be more directly engaged with employers across Canada on immigration issues.

Likewise, Citizenship and Immigration Canada is eager to help employers who want to inform themselves about – and frankly, take advantage of – the flexibility we have built and will continue to build into economic immigration system.

We have created a new section on our Department’s website – cic.gc.ca –titled, simply, “Employers”.  In that section, you will find information about hiring temporary foreign workers, about hiring skilled workers and supporting their permanent immigration, and about all of the various economic immigration programs available across the country.

The information has been recently updated, and  we will continue to look at tools we can add to help you navigate our immigration system.

If you want to help bring internationally trained workers into the Canadian labour market – as I hope many of you do – cic.gc.ca is the best place to get practical information about doing so.

In conclusion, this is a partnership. Together with those who employ skilled immigrants, the Government of Canada recognizes the importance of immigration to our economic health and values the contribution of skilled immigrants who add to our international competitiveness.

We are all committed to facilitating the arrival of the best and the brightest to our country – now and in the future.

Thank you.

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