Evidence of meeting #9 for Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities in the 43rd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was continue.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Catrina Tapley  Deputy Minister, Department of Citizenship and Immigration
Philippe Massé  Director General, Temporary Foreign Worker Program, Skills and Employment Branch, Department of Employment and Social Development
Louis Dumas  Acting Associate Assistant Deputy Minister, Operations, Department of Citizenship and Immigration

11:05 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Sean Casey

I call this meeting to order.

Welcome to meeting number nine of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities. Pursuant to the orders of reference of March 24, April 11 and April 20, the committee is meeting for the purpose of receiving evidence concerning matters related to the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Today’s meeting is taking place by video conference and the proceedings will be made available via the House of Commons website. The webcast will always show the person speaking, rather than the entirety of the committee.

In order to facilitate the work of our interpreters and ensure an orderly meeting, I will outline a few rules to follow.

First, interpretation in this video conference will work very much as in a regular committee meeting. At the bottom of your screen, you have the choice of floor, English or French. I would ask that the witnesses who are listening pay close attention to this. The MPs are used to it. In order to resolve sound issues, please ensure that you are on the English channel when speaking English, and on the French channel when speaking French. If you plan to alternate from one language to the other, please also switch the interpretation channel so it aligns with the language you are speaking.

Before speaking, please wait until I recognize you by name. When you are ready to speak, please click on the microphone icon to activate your mike.

I would remind you that all comments by members and witnesses should be addressed through the chair.

Should a member need to request the floor outside their designated time for questions, they should activate their mike and state that they have a point of order. However, if you wish to speak to a point of order that has been raised by another member, please use the “raise hand” function.

When speaking, please speak slowly and clearly. When you are not speaking, your mike should be on mute. The use of headsets is strongly encouraged and I see that our compliance level is getting better.

Primarily to our witnesses again, if you have a microphone on your headset that hangs down, please make sure that it is not rubbing on your shirt during your questioning time.

Should any technical challenges arise, such as in relation to interpretation or if you are accidentally disconnected, please advise the chair or the clerk immediately and the technical team will work to resolve them. Please note that we may need to suspend during these times, as we need to ensure that all members are able to participate fully.

Before we get started, if you haven't already done so, if you click on “gallery view” at the top right of your screen, you'll be able to see all video participants. It will ensure that everyone can see one another.

With those preliminaries covered, I will now thank the witnesses for joining us today.

We have with us the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, the Honourable Marco Mendicino. He is accompanied by officials from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada: Catrina Tapley, deputy minister; Marian Campbell Jarvis, assistant deputy minister, strategic and program policy; and Louis Dumas, acting associate deputy minister, operations.

As well, from Employment and Social Development Canada, we have Philippe Massé, director general, temporary foreign worker program, skills and employment branch; and Tara Cosgrove, executive director, integrity services branch.

Minister Mendicino, the floor is yours. You have 10 minutes.

11:05 a.m.

Eglinton—Lawrence Ontario

Liberal

Marco Mendicino LiberalMinister of Immigration

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.

11:15 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Sean Casey

Thank you very much, Minister.

I believe we may have some questions. We'll start with Mr. Kent for the Conservatives for six minutes.

Welcome to the committee, sir. You have the floor.

11:15 a.m.

Conservative

Peter Kent Conservative Thornhill, ON

Thank you, Chair.

Thanks to you, Minister, right off the top, and to your excellent staff, to department officials, for timely responses to a variety of my requests, comments and complaints regarding issues since the crisis began. Not all of our issues have been resolved, but the accessibility is appreciated.

Minister, your department faces massive process and protocol reconsiderations as a result of the COVID crisis. In the short term, with regard to the seasonal agricultural temporary foreign worker program, Canada needs to find a balance between millions of unemployed Canadians, our workers, and the skilled, experienced TFWs who are essential in some areas of the sector to ensure food production and food security right across the sector.

Last year almost 100,000 temporary foreign workers came to Canada. You've given us the update in the last month of 11,000 with 10,000 approved. We know a good many didn't make it into the country for a variety of reasons, but I'm wondering what the department's estimate is for the total number of foreign workers being able to get to Canada for the rest of the planting, growing and harvest season.

11:20 a.m.

Liberal

Marco Mendicino Liberal Eglinton—Lawrence, ON

Thank you, Mr. Kent, for the question.

I do want to say that it has been very collaborative to work with you and your staff, and we will continue to engage to work through the issues in the cases you have bought to my department's attention.

I do want to underline that we are indeed concerned about Canadians and unemployment, and we are providing financial support to Canadians right across the country through a variety of programs so they can bridge over this very difficult period.

When it comes to the temporary foreign worker program, as you point out, the reason for this program in the first instance is that there are some sectors of our economy that have proven stubborn over the years to recruit the domestic labour and skill that we need, so in an effort to fill those gaps, we have the temporary foreign worker program. In particular, that program has been a real success in the seasonal agricultural sector, and that is why we have ensured that, as part of our overall immigration policy, we have created an exemption for seasonal agricultural work.

I want to again take a moment to highlight the way in which we are facilitating their entry with an exemptions regime by innovating, standing up new teams, and processing times have truly come down remarkably so that we can prioritize their entry into Canada.

Some of the numbers you had asked about I already mentioned in my opening remarks, but we have approximately 20,000 already here and 10,000 who are approved and who we are attempting to get here. We are working very closely with our provincial partners and employers to ensure that they get here as quickly as possible.

11:20 a.m.

Conservative

Peter Kent Conservative Thornhill, ON

Okay. Thank you.

Minister, even before the COVID pandemic, GTA communities and beyond were struggling with the downloaded costs of accommodating thousands of men, women and children who availed themselves of the Prime Minister's illegal border-crossing invitation and made irregular asylum claims. Many of them are now clients of expanded homeless shelters and food banks. In the city of Toronto, just for example, more than 3,000 shelter beds have been added to the system since 2015. Again, before COVID the city had pleaded with the federal government to provide more than $100 million to cover the costs to date and going forward.

Now, I know you don't write the cheques, but might you remind the Prime Minister of his unfulfilled obligations to cover the costs that his misguided policy, it's fair to say, has downloaded on the GTA?

11:20 a.m.

Liberal

Marco Mendicino Liberal Eglinton—Lawrence, ON

First of all, when it comes to asylum, Mr. Kent, I hope you will agree that Canada is truly a role model in the world. That is because we believe in taking a compassionate approach to those who have been displaced through no fault of their own. Indeed, that work will continue, as it is truly one of the enduring values that underpin our immigration system.

With regard to the interim agreement we have entered into with the United States, as I pointed out, it upholds those rights while ensuring that we are protecting the health and safety of Canadians throughout this pandemic.

With regard to your question about our financial commitments to ensure that refugees are able to access the essential services once they are making their claims, our relationship with the provinces, and in particular with municipalities like Toronto, have been very strong over the years through successive governments. In particular, when it comes to Mayor Tory, with whom I have a very good working relationship, as do the rest of the members of our government, we have ensured that year over year they are getting the financial resources they need to bridge over the time in which individuals are coming and making asylum claims. That system has worked very well over the years, and as I say, it will continue.

11:20 a.m.

Conservative

Peter Kent Conservative Thornhill, ON

So will that $100-million cheque be cut?

11:20 a.m.

Liberal

Marco Mendicino Liberal Eglinton—Lawrence, ON

Well, as you say, Mr. Kent, I don't cut the cheques, but certainly we have made sure in the past that through a variety of programs, including the interim housing assistance program, cheques have been cut. Of course, we will continue to partner with the City of Toronto and other cities that are doing their fair share to help land asylum claimants and refugees.

11:25 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Sean Casey

Thank you, Minister. Thank you, Mr. Kent.

Colleagues, I regret to inform you that we have a technical problem that will require us to suspend for a few minutes. It relates to the phone lines.

May 8th, 2020 / 11:25 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Sean Casey

Madam Clerk, thank you very much. I believe we have our technical issues resolved.

We will now go to Mr. Dong for six minutes, please.

11:25 a.m.

Liberal

Han Dong Liberal Don Valley North, ON

Thank you, Chair.

Good morning, Minister. It's very nice to see you at the committee, online.

As you know, I have a particular interest in international students. Our public universities, such as Seneca in my riding, rely heavily on international student revenues. While waiting for the provinces' direction on the upcoming semester in September and the plan to act on recruitment, I want to hear from you on what your message is to potential international student candidates around the world. Specifically, when will you reopen the application intake?

11:30 a.m.

Liberal

Marco Mendicino Liberal Eglinton—Lawrence, ON

Thank you, Mr. Dong, both for your question and for your ongoing advocacy regarding international students.

I want to take a moment to reiterate what a tremendous economic contributor this program is to our economy. It pumps approximately $21 billion into the economy each year. It also adds to our social fabric. The skills and experience that these international students bring to our post-secondary institutions are very significant.

I want to say that we have been engaged directly and extensively with our provincial partners, as well as the post-secondary institution leaders themselves. As a result of their feedback, as I mentioned in my opening remarks, we have made a number of modifications to the international student program to ensure its ongoing success. We have created additional flexibility around online classes to ensure that those who are here are able to take their online courses this spring semester in a way that will not penalize their ability to work after they graduate.

We've also made some similar modifications for those international students who are abroad and who had plans to come to attend school this spring but were not able to because of the travel restrictions that are in place. We have ensured that they are able to continue to participate in those programs.

As I mentioned as well, we have widened the parameters of the work permits that attach to student visas to ensure those who are taking a degree in the essential services sectors, such as, nursing or medicine, or those taking a diploma in health care work.... Think about the additional support those students can lend to our front lines, whether it's in a long-term retirement home or in hospitals where we know COVID-19 strikes very hard and very quickly.

When you put all of these measures together, you'll see that our government has truly committed to ensuring that the international student program is a success, while at the same time protecting the health and safety of all Canadians throughout this pandemic. Of course, when it comes to our intake process, we look forward to having some additional news for you in the not too distant future.

11:30 a.m.

Liberal

Han Dong Liberal Don Valley North, ON

Thank you, Minister.

I know how committed you are to supporting international students. You were at one of my Zoom meetings and talked to the international students face to face. Thank you very much for that as well.

International students, when they graduate, are entitled to apply for a one- or three-year work permit, as you know. It is a crucial tool for them to accumulate enough points to apply for their permanent resident status. Obviously, they're facing a tremendous challenge during COVID. Would you consider a one-year automatic extension to those work permits?

11:30 a.m.

Liberal

Marco Mendicino Liberal Eglinton—Lawrence, ON

On the issue of extending visas and permits, in general terms my department has exercised its discretion judiciously in these circumstances to ensure that there is the least amount of disruption, particularly for those visa holders—students and workers, as I mentioned—who are here in Canada, recognizing that it's a challenge to get back home given that there aren't many international flights right now. Of course, those flexibilities are appropriate and they're exercised responsibly.

With regard to your question about the consideration of what occurs in the future around the one- to three-year requirement and having that requisite Canadian experience, I'm open to considering those options. Of course, we always have to balance the integrity of this program, because we do want to be sure that we are attracting the best and the brightest, those students who are here to acquire a degree, to put their shoulder to the wheel and to contribute to the economy, especially in the essential services, and then take those experiences back home, should they choose to and when they choose to.

With regard to transitioning from the international student program to permanent residence, those pathways do exist. As you point out, we have a points system that looks to align the skills and experiences that our Canadian economy needs with the ones that are presented by the students.

All of those principles will continue to apply as we seek to leverage the benefits of this program going forward.

11:30 a.m.

Liberal

Han Dong Liberal Don Valley North, ON

Thank you, Minister, for keeping that in consideration going forward, because I know, from talking to international students, that is perhaps the number one issue they would like some help with.

Around the world, we see that COVID-19 brings out the best in people as well as, unfortunately, sometimes the worst. I have seen an increased boldness in discriminatory actions against Asian Canadians in my community. I hear and I see that happening to newcomers and to international students as well.

In that context, and with the new interpretation, perhaps, of globalization post-COVID, what's your message to new Canadians, the best and brightest that we try to encourage to immigrate to Canada? What's your message?

11:35 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Sean Casey

Could we have a short answer, please, Minister.

11:35 a.m.

Liberal

Marco Mendicino Liberal Eglinton—Lawrence, ON

My message is that we are with you and we will condemn any and all examples of hate and racism in its many forms. This is work that I know our government has stood for, and I hope that all members of our House will join us in condemning these things. There is no place for racism or hatred in any form, even during a pandemic. Of course, we will be with those students and those Canadians.

11:35 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Sean Casey

Thank you, Minister.

Thank you, Mr. Dong.

Next we'll hear from Ms. Chabot.

Ms. Chabot, you have six minutes.

11:35 a.m.

Bloc

Louise Chabot Bloc Thérèse-De Blainville, QC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

I will be sharing my time with my colleague Christine Normandin.

Minister, thank you for being here. We know that you are dealing with many issues in your portfolio.

I would like to talk to you about Quebec in particular. As you mentioned, Quebec depends on temporary foreign workers to support our agricultural industry, which is a very important sector of our economy.

We know that farmers are worried. Some temporary foreign agricultural workers have already arrived, while others are still waiting. Will those who are still waiting be able to come to Canada? Can the government expedite the processing of these files so that all needs can be met? How will the government ensure the safety of the workers who come to Canada? Will the federal government take charge of these people when they arrive to ensure that they are quarantined?

11:35 a.m.

Liberal

Marco Mendicino Liberal Eglinton—Lawrence, ON

Thank you for the question, Ms. Chabot.

First, I would like to thank you for all the work you do in this area. It is so important.

I have had many discussions with my Quebec counterpart, Minister Jolin-Barrette, which has made it possible to make a lot of progress with regard to the arrival of temporary foreign agricultural workers in Canada and Quebec. Processing applications for workers in this stream is a priority for my department and we are working very hard on that. We have been able to make progress by dedicating a lot of resources to the processing of applications of temporary workers.

I will just say that we will continue to place the resources that are necessary to expedite and prioritize the arrival of temporary foreign workers in Canada. As I mentioned, 20,000 are already here, and there are another 10,000 who will, we hope, be arriving in short order.

To address the last part of your question, Madam Chabot, what we are doing to ensure the health and safety of the temporary foreign workers is putting in place a set of regulations around mandatory isolation, that 14-day period in which we have to be sure that they are asymptomatic. We are providing $50 million to the agricultural sector to ensure that the accommodations that need to be made in both lodging and workplace safety are made to protect not only the temporary workers who are coming in but the overall security of our food supply chain.

11:35 a.m.

Bloc

Christine Normandin Bloc Saint-Jean, QC

It is my turn, Minister. It is good to see you again.

I also have questions about temporary foreign workers in the agricultural industry. We hear a lot about the problems caused by closed permits. Because of the pandemic, some workers' employment was terminated because their employer did not have any more work for them. These workers could not return to Guatemala, for example, and they could not go and work elsewhere.

There is also the case of Quebec's maple syrup producers. They ended up with a labour surplus because sugar shacks had to be closed. Meanwhile, apple producers would have liked to have those workers to prune their trees. This type of problem was occurring even before the COVID crisis. For example, if a hailstorm destroyed one crop but another could be saved, foreign workers could not be transferred.

Would you be open to the idea of granting workers with a closed permit 30 or 60 days to go work for another company? That would enable them to continue to work, and there would be more time to process new applications or conduct new labour market impact assessments or LMIAs. It would also make it possible to quickly respond to urgent labour needs, for example, in the case of businesses that need someone one day a week.

11:40 a.m.

Liberal

Marco Mendicino Liberal Eglinton—Lawrence, ON

Thank you for your question and for the work that you do, Ms. Normandin. I know that you are in contact with my team regarding this priority.

We will continue to examine the possibility of making work permits issued under the temporary foreign worker program more flexible. Given the urgency of the current situation, we need to find new ways of doing things and new solutions to ensure food security. We will continue to work together to find solutions.

In the meantime, as I mentioned, Madam Normandin, we are continuing to prioritize the approvals of new temporary foreign worker permits as well as invite extensions of the temporary foreign worker visas that are about to expire. We are granting implied status to temporary foreign workers who are here and whose visas are expiring, and if they have to move from one job to another within the same sector, we are trying to find ways to expedite that process as quickly as possible.

I look forward to continuing to work with you on that important initiative.

11:40 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Sean Casey

Thank you, Ms. Normandin and Mr. Minister.

Next we have Jenny Kwan for six minutes.

11:40 a.m.

NDP

Jenny Kwan NDP Vancouver East, BC

Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.

Thank you, Minister. I also appreciate the calls that we've had and the responsiveness of your office.

I would like to follow up on the question—and I hope you have an answer for me today—with respect to temporary foreign workers, for example caregivers, when they have to meet the two-year work requirement and their work has been interrupted because of COVID. Will that period of time when their work has been interrupted count towards their two-year work requirement?