Bill would transform immigration – columnists – Bill would transform immigration
March 26, 2008
Carol Goar

It is possible that Immigration Minister Diane Finley wants more power to do exactly what she says: clean up her department’s enormous backlog of unprocessed applications.

It is also possible that she is equipping herself to transform Canada’s overloaded immigration system into a lean, business-friendly recruitment tool.

Both interpretations fit the available facts. The determining factor will be how the minister uses her expanded mandate.

Legal experts are still parsing the changes to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, introduced on March 14. But the preliminary consensus is that they are much more significant than Canadians have been told.

Under the new legislation, the immigration minister would have the authority to:

Limit the number of immigration applications Canada accepts.

Deny admission to applicants already approved by immigration officers.

Block the entry of would-be immigrants “by category or otherwise.”

These measures, backed by a $22 million funding boost in last month’s budget, would certainly allow the government to whittle down its pile of 900,000 unprocessed immigration applications.

If visa offices cut off new applications, the staff could tackle the six-year accumulation of paperwork in their files. If the minister instructed them, as a first priority, to discard all applications from individuals who have died, immigrated elsewhere or decided against coming to Canada, the pile would shrink appreciably.

But if clearing the backlog is Finley’s objective, why does she need the power to bar certain types of immigrants? Why does she seek the authority to reject applicants who have already met Canada’s admission criteria? Why doesn’t she just give managers of visa offices in countries such as China, India and the Philippines the discretion to close the intake pipe when their workloads become unmanageable?

The sweeping nature of the changes proposed in Bill C-50 suggests something bigger than housecleaning is afoot.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty called it “modernizing the immigration system” in his Feb. 26 budget. He said the government wants a “just-in-time competitive immigration system, which will quickly process skilled immigrants who can make an immediate contribution to the economy.”

The fastest way to get there is to centralize control in the minister’s office.

That is what Bill C-50 would do. If Finley wanted to block the inflow of relatives sponsored by family members in Canada, she could do it. If she wanted to exclude immigrants from certain countries, she could do it. If she wanted to propel foreign workers needed by a government-friendly employer to the front of the queue, she could do that, too.

“This fundamentally changes our immigration policy,” said Lorne Waldman, a lawyer who has practised in the field for more than 30 years. “The minister could issue an instruction overriding all of the existing criteria.”

What this means, Waldman said, is that Canada would no longer be an immigrant-welcoming country. It would be a rich Western power that shops for high-value immigrants. Federal officials would no longer use objective standards to determine whether an individual qualifies for a visa. The minister would be able to set and change the rules at will.

“I’m very concerned,” he said. “These changes are far more serious than people have been led to believe.”

The federal Liberals, in combination with any other opposition party, could defeat the proposed amendments to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. But such a vote would trigger an election because the changes are embedded in Flaherty’s budget implementation bill.

Moreover, the Liberals’ own record on this issue is nothing to boast about. It was their ham-handed attempt to bring in stringent new entry criteria in 2002 that caused most of the backlog.

What is sorely needed – and not likely to happen – is a thorough debate.

Perhaps Finley has no intention of currying favour with ethnic voters, catering to the demands of business or keeping out people from certain regions. But if this bill becomes law, there will be nothing to stop her.

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