Mr. Chair, I'll begin by thanking you and the members of this committee for the opportunity to join you this morning.
This is not only my first appearance before HUMA, but also my first address in this new virtual era of Parliament. I hope that all of you, your families and staff are keeping well and healthy.
It has been a period of great transition for all of us and I commend this committee for continuing its important work.
We convene at an unprecedented moment in our history. COVID-19 poses one of the gravest risks that Canada and the rest of the world have seen in many generations, yet we have come together to meet the challenge.
No one deserves our gratitude more than the front-line health care workers and first responders who bravely put their own lives on the line to save others. To them, we say, “Thank you. You have our most profound appreciation.” The best way we can demonstrate our gratitude to these health care heroes is by remaining united in our most urgent cause: to confront and overcome this global pandemic.
Since the outbreak, there has been renewed collaboration throughout all levels of government and across party lines. Together, we have passed historic legislation that is delivering billions in emergency financial relief aid for workers, businesses and charities.
We have operationalized unparalleled public health care controls and launched a procurement and production effort, the likes of which have not been seen since the Second World War, and our co-operation is paying off. We are starting to see the curve flatten. There is reason for cautious optimism. However, the storm has not yet completely passed. There are still risks ahead and our work must continue.
My department is contributing in the overall Government of Canada response to COVID-19.
From the start, we took quick action to implement travel restrictions to limit the spread of the virus. These measures are necessary and important to ensure the health and safety of Canadians.
In March, Canada and the United States entered into an interim agreement prohibiting all non-essential travel between our countries. We agreed to temporarily return asylum seekers, with assurances from the United States that their rights and due process would be respected. We also agreed to exemptions to this agreement to include immediate family members of Canadian residents whose travel is essential, those who hold valid work visas, including temporary foreign workers, those who hold valid student visas and permanent resident visa holders who were approved prior to March 18, 2020. These exemptions support the Canadian economy, essential services and reuniting families.
I think it is also important to point out that my work is closely related to that of a number of my cabinet colleagues since our teams have to work together on a daily basis. We are all working hand in hand to ensure that Canadians and their families have everything they need in these very difficult times.
We are working in close co-operation, but we have very distinct accountabilities and mandates. Our government is prioritizing work permit processing for critical occupations, such as those in the agricultural, agri-food and health care sectors.
Temporary foreign workers are vital to the success of our agricultural and seafood sectors and, by extension, the food security of all Canadians.
Let me pause here to express my deep concern following the outbreaks at several food processing plants and farms around the country. Our thoughts go out to the families of those workers who recently passed away.
Everyone has the right to work in a safe environment in Canada, including temporary workers. That is why our government introduced mandatory 14-day isolation protocols for facilities like these. It's also the reason we added new regulations under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act to create enforcement powers to ensure compliance with physical and social distancing rules in the workplace. We backed these measures with $50 million to help food production and employers. In addition, we've sped up the application process to take less than a week, thanks to a new, dedicated processing team, and added flexibility in online processing.
I want to also extend my appreciation to our public servants who have truly and remarkably innovated in this challenging period. The proof is in the numbers. Roughly 23,000 seasonal agricultural workers are already here to help plant and seed.
Last month, over 11,000 temporary foreign workers arrived in Canada on charter flights to support our farmers, prepare for planting and carry out other work in our agricultural and agri-food industry.
There are another 10,000 whose visas have been approved. These workers will provide critical support to our farmers and processors in particular and will ensure Canadians have the food they need.
For workers who are already in Canada and have been impacted by COVID-19, we've introduced additional strategies to address workers' rights, status restoration and timelines for documentation. Most workers are able to extend their permit to remain legally in Canada while awaiting a decision on their application, and many workers can continue to work in this situation.
The health of workers and Canadians is our top priority and that is why we are continuing to work in close co-operation with the provinces and employer associations to ensure that they have all the tools they need to keep everyone healthy and safe.
The international student program is one of the most successful programs in government. It contributes over $21 billion per year to the Canadian economy. It remains an economic driver in cities, big and small, and the students who participate in this program contribute in many positive ways to the social fabric of Canada.
We have engaged with our provincial counterparts and the post-secondary sector and acted on their feedback by temporarily lifting the 20-hour per week restriction on study permit holders working in essential services like health care. We've also provided more flexibility for students whose classes we've moved online due to the emergency to keep them from being penalized on their post-graduation work permit eligibility, provided that they complete at least 50% of their study program in class in Canada. These changes have been received very positively, and we are actively considering other options to ensure the long-term success of this program.
I hope this brief outline of the work that my department has been engaged in as part of the response to COVID-19 has been informative. We will continue to ensure that the immigration policies that we have put in place have been effective in responding to the pandemic and will position Canada for success as we begin to reopen the economy. In the interim, we will continue to support the day-to-day administration of the travel exemptions regime by ensuring that foreign workers and international students are able to enter into Canada, because we recognize their vital importance to our economy and to our food security.
The measures I have spoken about today, the facilitation, the financial supports and the regulations, will help ensure that the enormous benefits that temporary foreign workers bring to our economy are not lost in the disruption of the pandemic, even as we adjust our programs to ensure the health and security of all Canadians.
I know I have only touched on some of our work in this busy time.
Thank you, Mr. Chair and committee members. I look forward to hearing your questions.