Thank you very much, Mr. Chair, honourable members.
Mr. Chairman, honourable members, I appreciate the opportunity to address Bill C-50 on budget implementation, which contains our government's proposed amendments to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.
As I said to our colleagues at the finance committee, I'm proud to serve as the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration in a government that recognizes that immigration is as important to Canada's future as it has been to our past. Our country was built on immigration, and our future prosperity and success as a country largely depends on it.
To put things in context, by 2012, all of Canada's net labour force growth will have to come from immigration, but at this time there are over 900,000 people in the queue waiting to immigrate to Canada. Many of them have to wait up to six years before their application gets looked at, let alone processed. The stark reality is that if we do nothing to address the backlog by 2012, applicants will face a 10-year wait time to have their applications processed. The lineup of people waiting to get into Canada could reach upwards of 1.5 million people.
Contrary to the previous government, we do not believe the status quo is acceptable or sustainable.
If we do nothing to address this problem, we risk having families wait even longer to be reunited with their loved ones, and we risk losing the people our country needs to other countries, which are in fierce competition with us for the skills and talents that immigrants bring.
The current immigration system is broken and desperately needs repair. The status quo on immigration is simply unacceptable. The current system is unfair to our country and it's unfair to those waiting to come here. Because immigration is so important to Canada's future, we need a modern and renewed vision for immigration, a vision that involves a new and responsive immigration system, one that would allow us to continue welcoming more immigrants while helping them get the jobs they need to succeed to build a better life for themselves and for their families. However, to realize this vision, changes must be made.
In our immigration system today, anyone can apply. That is a good thing, and we will not change that. It reflects the fundamental commitment to fairness that all Canadians share. However, the current system leaves us little flexibility in terms of what we do with those applications.
By law, we have to process every single completed immigration application to a decision, even if a person has moved on to another country or is simply no longer interested in coming here. Our obligation to process every single application to a decision remains, regardless of how many people apply or how many were able to accept.
Furthermore, we are generally limited to processing applications in the order that we receive them. So quite simply, the current system, if left unchanged, is on track to collapse under its own weight.
In the current context, Mr. Chair, we must realize that other countries are not sitting idly by. The fact is that we face serious international competition in attracting the people with the talents and the skills we need to ensure our country's continued growth and prosperity.
Put simply, inaction on the backlog will result in the people we need going elsewhere as wait times to come to Canada continue to increase.
In Australia and New Zealand, where they have the kind of flexibility we seek, applicants get final decisions in as little as six months, not six years. It's important to note that when compared with the United Kingdom, Australia, or New Zealand, Canada is the only country that does not use some kind of occupational filter to screen, code, or prioritize skilled worker applications.
So compared to other countries, Canada's system is just not flexible enough.
Urgent action is required so that we can welcome more immigrants and their families faster while ensuring that the workers we need get here sooner. To accomplish this objective, Mr. Chair, our government has proposed a three-pronged approach.
Number one, we have committed to investing more resources—$109 million over five years. But more money isn't enough. We also have to do things smarter, better, and faster.
So we'll make administrative changes as well, such as centralizing our data entry to free up resources in our overseas missions for more processing. We'll also code applications in the backlog by occupation so that we can refer applications of interest to the provinces and the territories for processing under the provincial nominee programs.
As part of our administrative changes, we'll also send in dedicated teams to our overseas missions to speed up processing in parts of the world where wait times are the longest, and we'll transfer resources from busy to less busy missions. For example, in October, when we lifted visa restrictions on the Czech Republic and Latvia, we transferred resources to the Philippines to help with the backlogs there.
But increasing funding and improving administrative efficiencies is not enough. Systemic change is needed in order to fix the system. That is why we have introduced legislative changes to give us the flexibility and authority to both manage the backlog and set priorities that would match Canada's needs.
Our proposed legislation will allow the minister to identify categories of occupations—not individuals—for processing on a priority basis; that is, the proposed legislation will allow for the processing of applications based on our country's needs, not on one's individual place in the line. To make sure that we get it right, there are several checks and balances on the minister. First of all, the ministerial instructions will have to comply with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Our immigration system will continue to be universal and non-discriminatory.
The instructions will also complement the objectives of IRPA, that is, to support Canada's economy and competitiveness, reunite families, and protect refugees. These instructions will also require broad input.
Prior to issuing the instructions, the government will consult with the provinces and territories and industry and government departments to shape the approach. In consulting with the provinces, we will seek assurance that when they say they need immigrants with certain skills, those immigrants can actually get their credentials recognized so they can work.
Finally, ministerial instructions will be subject to cabinet approval, ensuring government-wide accountability for the decisions taken. And to be completely transparent, the instructions will be published in the Canada Gazette, on the departmental website, and will be reported in CIC's annual report, which is tabled in Parliament.
Mr. Chair, let me be crystal clear on two key points about these proposals. First, contrary to the misinformation that is out there, we will not be placing any limits on the number of applications we accept; Canada remains open to immigrants and anyone can still apply. However, under the proposed legislative changes, we will not have to process every application. Those applications that are not processed in a given year could be held for future consideration or be returned to the applicant with a refund of their application fee—and they would be welcome to reapply.
The result will be that the backlog will stop growing and will actually start to come down. The flexibility in managing the backlog will accomplish three things: it will help reduce the backlog; it will ensure that immigrants have the jobs they need to succeed; and it will allow our country to continue to grow and prosper.
That is what these proposed amendments would do, Mr. Chairman. However, I should also clarify what the proposed changes would not do.
There are some who are suggesting that this legislation will put too much power in the hands of the Minister.
For example, there's a myth out there that the minister would be arbitrarily able to cherry-pick applicants in the queue and override immigration officers' decisions on individual cases. This is simply not the case, as the minister is limited to designating priority categories, not applicants; nor will the minister have the authority to select an application for processing or reject an application that has been processed and accepted.
With respect to concerns expressed about the impact of the legislation on family reunification and humanitarian and compassionate cases, any instruction from the minister will have to respect the objectives of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, which include supporting Canada's economy and competitiveness, supporting family reunification, and upholding our humanitarian requirements.
To be clear, the ministerial instructions will not apply to refugees, protected persons, or humanitarian and compassionate applications made from within Canada. We would also continue to establish clear target ranges for numbers of immigrants that we intend to accept in each category. In the case of family class applications, this means Canada plans to accept approximately 70,000 applicants in 2008.
The instructions must also respect our commitments to provinces and territories regarding the Provincial Nominee Program and the Canada-Quebec Accord.
I know that time is running out, Mr. Chairman and I am looking forward to your questions.
In conclusion, let me just say that our proposed changes to the immigration system are ultimately about people. It's about a vision for our country to make sure that people who have gone through so much to get here succeed at building a better life for themselves and for their family. It's about helping newcomers get the jobs they need to succeed, because their success is our success. And it's about ensuring the future growth and prosperity of immigrants and their families while building a better Canada. These proposals would achieve that vision and would help immigrants continue to contribute to the future of Canada.
I'd like to thank this committee for the fine work you did on Bill C-37, in reviewing that, concerning the “lost Canadians”, and also on the unanimous report you submitted on which that bill was based. I was very pleased and proud of you and your efforts when that bill received royal assent recently.
Thank you for this opportunity to address the committee.
I am now prepared to take questions.