Immigration bill requires debate – comment – Immigration bill requires debate
April 14, 2008
Carol Goar

Shortcuts can lead to deep trouble.

That is where the Conservative government has landed with its hastily introduced, poorly explained bill to overhaul Canada’s immigration system.

By short-circuiting parliamentary debate, Immigration Minister Diane Finley has spawned a host of suspicions. By burying her legislation in a budget implementation bill, she has alienated many ethnic groups. By downplaying legitimate concerns, she has raised fears about the government’s motives.

In a belated attempt to clarify the bill, the minister sent her deputy, Richard Fadden and her communications director, Mike Fraser, to Toronto late last week to brief the media. They made their presentation in a cavernous auditorium. Eight journalists were there.

Most of the media – especially the ethnic press, which the government was courting – was at Nathan Phillips Square covering a protest against the bill. It featured speakers from the Chinese-Canadian National Council, the Canadian Arab Federation, the Portuguese-Canadian National Congress, the Canadian Hispanic Congress, the South Asian Unity Forum and the Canadian Ethnocultural Council.

This suggests the die may already be cast.

Despite his minuscule audience, Fadden took the time to explain the bill properly, outline the government’s rationale and answer all questions.

Had Finley provided this information in the first place, she probably wouldn’t be in the mess she’s in. While there are grounds to be seriously concerned about the unchecked power the legislation would give the immigration minister, there are also sensible measures in the bill.

Had Finley been straightforward about her objectives from the outset, she might not be facing a distrust-fuelled backlash. The intent of the bill was never, as she claimed, solely to reduce the backlog of 925,000 unprocessed immigration applications; it was to give Canada an edge in the global competition for highly skilled labour. This shift in focus, while controversial, is defensible.

Now that it is possible to untangle some of these threads, a more balanced assessment can be made.

Here is what is good about the government’s plan:

* It would enable the immigration department to deal with the buildup of files that has developed since the early ’90s.

The $109 million in the 2008 budget combined with Finley’s authority to cap the number of applications that would be processed in any given year, would allow visa officers to whittle down the backlog.

Hiring more staff would accelerate the process, but federal officials didn’t think cabinet would accept the price. It costs $900,000 to $1 million to send a visa officer abroad.

* It would reduce the number of foreign-trained professionals driving cabs and working in fast-food outlets.

Each year, the federal immigration minister would work with the provinces, business and labour to draw up a list of high-priority occupations. Before putting any profession on the list, the minister would require assurances that its members would be licensed.

* It would give Canada more flexibility to bring in immigrants whose skills match the country’s labour needs.

Under the current system, newcomers are admitted on the basis of their education, linguistic ability, work experience and general adaptability. Under the new system, those with high-demand skills could be given preference.

Here is what is troubling about the proposed reforms:

* An immigration system that used to be run according to known, predictable rules would be subject to ever-changing ministerial direction. The legislation would grant the minister the authority to issue instructions regarding the types of applications – skilled workers, family class, job qualifications – to be processed, as often as he or she wished.

* It would effectively bar individuals who meet Canada’s entry criteria, but aren’t on the minister’s priority list. Their application and $475 visa fee would be returned, with a note explaining they hadn’t made the annual cut. They could reapply, but the same outcome would be likely.

* It would leave the immigration system open to discrimination.

Fadden insisted that no public employee would – or could under the Charter of Rights – turn down any applicant on the basis of race, nationality or religion. But that is scant comfort to foreign nationals who aren’t covered by the Charter. Their only recourse would be to ask the Federal Court of Canada for a judicial review of their case.

These pros and cons need to be weighed carefully. Canadians need to understand what’s at stake. Immigrants and minority groups need to be brought into the debate.

Whisking this bill into law would be a shortcut to disaster.

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