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

“Canada’s Immigration System and Our Economic Future”

At the Economic Club of Canada Event
Laurier Room, Château Laurier, 1 Rideau Street
Ottawa, March 7, 2012

As delivered

Thank you, and congratulations to the Economic Club of Canada on your launch here in Ottawa and all of your activities. I believe you have a luncheon every day this week, and I am pleased to be with you again.

I’d like in particular to recognize parliamentary colleagues. My Parliamentary Secretary and the Member of Parliament for St. Catharines, Rick Dykstra. Thank you, Rick for being here, and for your good work and my official opposition critic and Member of Parliament for Vancouver–Kingsway, Don Davies, a very diligent and, and hardworking critic, but Don, please don’t heckle me during the speech. You can, but I see there’s a question period afterwards and you’re not limited to 35 seconds.

We have a very constructive relationship with all of the parties through the Immigration Committee, which I think actually reflects one of the great blessings of Canada, which is that this is perhaps the only major liberal democracy in the world where there is a broadly pro-immigration political consensus across the political spectrum and I think we see that in the constructive work that we do. I see Kerry-Lynne Findlay is here, Parliamentary Secretary to Minister of Justice and Member of Parliament for Delta–Richmond East. So, thank you colleagues and friends for being here.

I’m here today, to talk to you about a serious challenge to Canada’s prosperity. The problem is really a paradox. Canada is experiencing huge and growing labour shortages. That’s why we are maintaining very high levels of immigration. But far too many of the immigrants we welcome here end up being unemployed or underemployed. And that just makes no sense.

It has gone on for far too long. The time has come for fundamental change to our rigid, slow moving immigration programs. And this government will deliver that change. Change to ensure that immigration works for Canada and for newcomers; change that aligns those we welcome with the large and growing labour shortages that threaten our prospects of future growth; change that aligns those we welcome with the larger and growing labour shortages, as I say, in all parts of the country as we see development, whether it’s in the Far North, in the West, in Atlantic Canada, in every region; change so that newcomers are fulfilled by dignity of work, rather than being dragged down by the struggle to survive.

As Prime Minister Harper said in his major address at the World Economic Forum in January, “In the months to come, our government will undertake major transformations to position Canada for growth over the next generation, including significant reform of our immigration system. We will ensure that, while we respect our humanitarian obligations and our family reunification objectives, we make our economic and labour force needs the central goal of our immigration efforts in the future.”

We all know and celebrate the powerful and positive myth about immigration to Canada. It’s part of who we are.

Just think of Clifford Sifton’s archetypal post-recruitment posters that offered free land and drew millions to Canada the Last Best West. From the enterprising settlers who arrived with Samuel de Champlain 400 years ago, to the Clearance Scots and Famine Irish of the mid 19th century, including my ancestors, to the Sikh lumber workers and Chinese railroad labourers who helped open the Pacific Coast, to Sifton’s men in sheepskin coats who plowed virgin soil in the Prairies, it was generations of newcomers whose relentless work ethic made this a land of unparalleled prosperity and limitless potential.

But is that myth true today? We continue to be an open and welcoming land. In fact, since this government took office, we have welcomed on average, over a quarter of a million newcomers each year, representing the highest sustained levels of immigration in Canadian history.

Indeed, while previous governments actually slashed immigration levels during previous recessions, we have done the opposite, increasing immigration by some 14%. By adding 0.8% of our population per year through immigration, we are maintaining the highest per capita levels in the developed world.

Now, notwithstanding these high levels of immigration, there are still infinitely more people around the world who dream of being able to begin new lives in Canada. In fact, according to a global survey by Angus Reid a couple of years ago, at least two billion people around the world would like to immigrate to Canada.  I call that a good problem to have. It means that Canada can afford quite frankly to be selective about the newcomers who we choose, identifying those who have the skills and experience and that are most likely to lead to success, to finding and keeping good jobs, and starting successful businesses.

Over the past several years, I’ve had the opportunity to get to know thousands of Canadians who have come here from every corner of the globe, from illiterate refugees who have spent years in UN camps before being resettled to Canada and face steep integration challenges, like the Karen Burmese refugees I recently met in Langley, BC, to bright foreign students who have just obtained a degree from a Canadian university and are ready to take on the world, to skilled workers who have brought with them remarkable education and experience.

And let me tell you something, I have been profoundly inspired.

The vast majority of these newcomers have deeply impressed me with their determination to succeed, with their desire to help us build Canada, and with their amazing bottomless work ethic. In fact, I often am reminded when I meet these newcomers, and I see the ambition in their eyes, that they bring to this country the sort of founding virtues which helped to make this a land of prosperity and opportunity.

When I meet with employers across the country who depend on new Canadians, they tell me again and again that the newcomers are raising the work ethic, the level of productivity, and a positive attitude that they bring to their work. They appreciate the opportunity to work in Canada. And the employers tell me that, in fact, this becomes infectious, even for the Canadian born employees who perhaps are a little less enthusiastic. But sadly, so many of these newcomers end up at the margins of our labour market, stuck in survival jobs, frustrated and disappointed that their dreams of opportunity are not coming true in Canada.

And the data tells us that this happens far, far too often.

Too often, being an immigrant has meant being poor, more likely to be underemployed or unemployed, and less equipped for a modern economy than someone who is born in Canada. For roughly the past three decades, we have seen the economic status of newcomers on the decline. For example, results from the 2006 census show that immigrants who arrived in Canada in 2004 were more than three times as likely to have low incomes. Fully 34% of newcomers fell into the low income category of the census, compared to 9.7% for the general population. Unemployment for immigrants with university degrees is three times higher than amongst native born Canadians with university degrees.

So for too long, the archetype of immigration to Canada has been that of an education professional arriving from a developing country only to find seemingly impenetrable barriers to getting licensed to practise in their profession, unable to find a Canadian job because, ironically, they don’t have Canadian experience, and are often held back by a deficit of soft social skills, including official language proficiency. For example, a recent study showed that 60% of newcomers were below Level 3 on the International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey, which is considered the minimum skill level necessary to meet the challenges of today’s economy.

So that professional we all know who arrives with great hope too often ends up, as we know, taking a survival job just to put bread on the table for his or her family. Working as a cab driver, in a convenience store, or pulling the graveyard shift as a security night watchman.

And here’s the paradox. While that educated immigrant is disappointed and often goes into a downward spiral of disappointment and depression, which can have negative impacts on family and their broader circle, while what’s happening in his household, in his or her life, in other parts of the country, and in other parts of the economy, employers are desperate for skilled workers.

And here is the paradox about which I spoke at the beginning.

We are bringing in historic high levels of immigrants, the highest relative levels in the developed world, yet many of them are facing unemployment or underemployment in an economy with huge and growing labour shortages.

Something’s broken and needs to be fixed.

Virtually every think tank and major group, industrial group, from the Federation of Independent Business to the Chambers of Commerce, estimate that by the end of this decade, Canada will be facing a labour shortage of hundreds of thousands of workers across the entire skills spectrum.

I was just down in South-eastern Saskatchewan, where there is amazing and sustainable economic growth, meeting with employers who were pounding the table asking us to do better, to bring newcomers to that part of Saskatchewan. They were telling me that there are shortages right from farm labourers to do basic unskilled labour at $25 an hour, all the way up to lawyers, if you can believe it. The first time in my life I’d ever heard the problem of a shortage of lawyers, but apparently it exists. And that’s in a province where we’ve managed to quadruple immigration levels over the past five years through changes that we’ve made and yet it’s still not filling the job shortages, which led Premier Wall and dozens of Saskatchewan employers to go to Ireland just this past week to recruit thousands of unemployed Irish to come to that province.

That’s the paradox that we have: huge labour shortages, yet high levels of immigration that too often are bringing underemployed or unemployed newcomers.

How does it make any sense to bring newcomers to face underemployment in an economy with unfilled jobs? So it’s time for some frank discussion on the need for transformational change in our immigration programs, so that we select the newcomers who will fill the job shortages that exist, so that not only can they add to the maximum of their potential, to Canada’s productivity, and our prosperity, but so that they are rewarded in the process.

That’s what I mean, when I say we must have transformational change, to move to an immigration program that works for Canada and for newcomers.

Now we’ve already done much to reform our immigration programs so that they are more responsive to our labour markets. For example, our government has massively expanded the Provincial Nominee Programs, going from about 4,000 admissions in 2005 to a planned 45,000 number of immigrants through the Provincial Nominee Programs this year. This has been a huge success. It has led, finally, to a much better geographic distribution of newcomers across the country.

Ten and twenty years ago, we saw about nine out of ten newcomers settle in Quebec, Ontario and BC, primarily in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. Even if that’s where the best job opportunities couldn’t be found. But, with the expansion of the Provincial Nominee Program, which typically has employers nominating workers from abroad and having them approved by the province and then processed by my ministry, we have now seen basically a tripling of immigration levels on the Canadian Prairies, a doubling in Atlantic Canada, fewer people going to Vancouver and more going to the interior of BC.

Now you can go to small communities in the Canadian Prairies that were shrinking, like the communities I grew up in Southern Saskatchewan, and see that they are growing with tremendous attributes of greater diversity as well. So that’s been a success story in helping to get a better geographic alignment and having newcomers go straight into jobs that are already set up for them.

Secondly, we’ve created my favourite immigration, the Canadian Experience Class. This is something that should have been done ages ago. We used to tell foreign students who came and got Canadian degrees and diplomas, thanks very much, you now have a degree that will be recognized by a Canadian employer, you have perfected your English or French language skills, now please leave the country and if you want to immigrate, get in the back of an eight-year long queue and we’ll be back in touch with you.

Talk about madness.

Now, we have the Canadian Experience Class, which says okay, you’ve graduated from a Canadian university or college, and by the way, we’ve given you an open work permit for two years. If you work for an employer for one year following the diploma or the degree, we are going to invite you to stay as a permanent resident, on a fast track basis, because you are set for success. You’re already pre-integrated, you got the degree that will be recognized by a Canadian employer, you’ve already got a job, and your English language skills or French language skills are perfected. And so this program is growing, and I think will represent in many ways, the future of immigration.

Thirdly, we have made important reforms to the Skilled Worker Program. This is our, our sort of main federal economic immigration program. First of all, in 2002, the previous government quite sagely changed the points grid, putting more emphasis on human capital and on language proficiency. And here’s some good news. While we have seen a three-decade decline in economic results for newcomers, in the past few years, we’ve started to turn the corner, thanks, we believe, to the higher level of human capital of the skilled workers being selected, based on the points grid that came into effect a decade ago.

And here’s a key finding. For the skilled workers who have arrived through that program who already had jobs lined up in Canada, they were making an average salary after just their third year in Canada of, get this, $79,000, well above the average Canadian salary. What does that tell us? People with flexible human capital, high levels of language proficiency, and a pre-arranged job are set for success.

And so that will be an important guide post as we move towards transformational change.

Finally, I cannot understate to what extent our system has been burdened by huge and growing backlogs in the past. Frankly, it was a result of Canada’s unwillingness to properly manage the intake of the new applications. Every year, for several years, we were getting hundreds of thousands of new applications, and with the legal obligation to process them, but we could only admit, in our immigration plan, roughly a quarter of a million people and every year. The queue just grew larger and larger, to the point where our cumulative immigration backlog is now in the range of a million files in many of the programs, waiting for seven or eight years.

I want to thank and commend the Standing Committee on Immigration for their excellent report on this issue, yesterday.

The government has taken action to reduce immigration backlogs, particularly in the Skilled Worker Program. This backlog has decreased by about 50% and, happily, new applications are now being processed within 12 months. However, some older applications are still in the backlog. It still takes my department seven to eight years to make a decision on those applications.

And that slow moving, burdened, backlog-ridden system means that we do not have an immigration system that can be fast and nimble, and respond to job offers or changes in the Canadian economy and labour market. It is, therefore, essential that we reduce and eliminate these backlogs, so that we can move from a slow, rigid and passive immigration system to a fast, flexible and responsive immigration system.

As I just said, it is essential that we take action to reduce and eliminate these backlogs, so that we have a system that is fast and flexible and that can respond to changes in the labour market.

So we are making enormous progress, but we need to go further. We are exploring ways to reduce the backlog. 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 right 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 looking at ways to have applicants whose applications are caught in the backlog consent to having us share their files with Canadian employers who have positions to be filled. Applications from applicants who already have a job offer in Canada will be processed on a priority basis.

So we’re looking at possibly something like an expression of interest system where people would give us their consent to share their applications with employers and with provinces so that they can get a job offer before they get into Canada, again ensuring their success upon arrival.

New Zealand and Australia – countries with immigration systems very similar to ours – have already gone even further and introduced changes to their systems that would make them nimbler, more flexible and more reflective of modern labour market realities than what was the case 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 jobs and economic needs.

Now, 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 skill shortages.

There are exciting possibilities before us when it comes to the future of immigration to Canada. But of course, the first step is to eliminate this huge unfair backlog as soon as we can. Again, we’re open to creative suggestions and we will continue to consult with Canadians about the best way forward in immigration reform.

In fact, in my remaining moments with you, I’d like to speak more broadly about our public consultations and how employers can become more proactively involved in the immigration system, and this is key.

When I say we want to go from a passive system, where basically people overseas just put applications in our system, come to Canada without jobs, often taking years, we want to go from that to an active system, where Canadian employers are actively recruiting people in the international labour market from abroad, because I believe quite frankly that employers know better who is likely to succeed in their workplace than a passive and rigid government bureaucratic system does. And so we will be inviting Canadian employers to take a much more active role in the immigration process.

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 labour market needs.

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 our effort to ensure that our immigration programs are in sync with employers’ needs in every part of the country.

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

We have created a new section on our department’s website titled, simply, “Employers”. In that section, you will find information about hiring temporary foreign workers, 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.

So, if you want to help bring internationally trained workers into our labour market – as I hope many of you do – our ministry is a tremendous source of information.

In conclusion, this in the future will be a partnership.

The immigration system of the future will move from being slow moving, rigid and passive, to one that is fast moving, flexible and based actively on recruiting people to fill the jobs that are needed to be filled in Canada today.

I am truly excited about this transformational change, upon which we have already embarked, but 2012 will be a year of historic importance as we once again renew the promise of immigration in Canada. As we once again make absolutely true that great founding myth of immigration as a source of our prosperity and opportunity.

We are blessed as a country to receive so many newcomers from around the world, who are prepared to leave behind everything that’s safe and familiar in their countries of origin, in order to take the great risk to come here and start without any guarantees.

We owe it to them to do everything within our power to ensure their success because when those new Canadians succeed, Canada succeeds.

Merci beaucoup.

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