I'd like to thank the committee for the opportunity to present the perspectives of the B.C. Chamber of Commerce's 30,000 business members. These members represent every size, every sector, and every region of our province.
This is a particularly critical issue for British Columbia and for our membership, so the changes proposed to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, as contained in Bill C-50, part 6, is a significant issue for our members.
To be clear, my comments today represent a policy position that has been developed by our membership. The B.C. Chamber of Commerce has a very clearly defined and well-structured policy development process. We ask our members to bring us their issues of concern. We then work them through a very significant committee structure. They are then presented to our entire membership at our annual general meeting, and only if they are voted on and adopted by two-thirds of the membership do they become our stated policy position.
That process in 2006 led to the adoption of a resolution that we have titled “Overhaul of the Canadian Immigration System”, and it is that policy position that forms the basis of our comments to you today.
The B.C. Chambers of Commerce have been the leading voice for almost a decade, calling for government at every level and the business community to realize the scale of the challenge facing the province, and more recently the country, through the looming skills and labour shortage that we're facing in every sector. This has been identified by the chamber in our “Moving Forward” report, by our “Closing the Skills Gap” report of 2002, and rather unimaginatively, our “Closing the Skills Gap II” report of 2008.
Until recently we have held the very strong position that these calls have not been heard and have not been heeded. With this in mind, we must congratulate the federal government for the role it is playing in addressing many of these issues of concern to business, particularly those in the west. Over recent months this action has seen the introduction of or the soon-to-be-introduced new Canadian experience class, a new expedited labour market opinion program, the overdue launch of the first phase of the foreign credential recognition office, and a significant expansion of the provincial nominee program that in British Columbia will see 15,000 high-demand occupations being taken in through this program by 2010-2011.
We are particularly pleased with all of these areas because the resolution that was passed by our membership in 2006--and I am going to summarize the recommendations for you--called for the overhaul of the permanent immigration system. It called for the immediate allocation of resources to offices overseas to assist with the processing of applications. It called for a shift of resources away from family class immigrants into the skilled worker class to cut the wait times that are currently being experienced, and it called for government to ensure that the process for bringing foreign workers to Canada is driven by a true reflection of supply and demand, rather than being process-driven.
The chamber believes that the proposed changes, as outlined in Bill C-50, go a long way to addressing many of these concerns that have been expressed by our members.
Bill C-50, we believe, brings the welcome elevation of economic priorities as a cornerstone of the changes that are proposed. The chamber believes the flexibility as a result of this must be enshrined in the system. The needs of the economy today will not be the needs of the economy tomorrow. As we have seen with the institutional refusal to undertake changes to the point system, without a more flexible approach we will almost inevitably return to a situation where the system quickly falls behind the needs of the economy.
Despite our support of Bill C-50, however, the chamber does have two reasonably significant concerns or reservations regarding the proposed changes. I would be extremely surprised if the committee has not heard the first, and that is the change to subsection 11(1), which removes the “shall” and inserts a “may” into the process.
From our perspective, if you are a prospective immigrant, you go through the application process, you put the paperwork in, you go through all the checks and balances. If you are successful in all of those stages, we do not see a situation whereby you would be removed or refused a visa to enter Canada. The structure that's put in place is very clearly defined. It is quite a rigorous one. From that perspective, if you go through that process, we believe you have the right to be issued a visa.
While the principles released by the ministry outline a commitment to identify the priority occupations--and the ministry has stated this will be based on input from the provinces, territories, the Bank of Canada, employers and organized labour--the manner of these consultations is neither mandated prior to the issuance of instructions, and we understand these instructions could be issued more than once in the space of a year, nor required for each set of ministerial instructions. As such, the chamber believes the ministry should mandate full consultation priority areas prior to the issuance of any ministerial instructions, no matter how many times they are issued in the space of a year.
Furthermore, the chamber also believes that these consultations should be made public and that the consultation material and feedback be tabled, along with the instructions that are part of the changes the minister will put before the House when the minister issues those instructions to her department.
I would like to give you a bit of a brief as to why this is such a significant issue for British Columbia. While the scale of the challenge facing Canada is indeed significant, it is particularly acute in British Columbia, and also in Alberta. We have gone through a process this year whereby we have reached out to our members to try to identify what are the priority areas for the business community. And from all of our member chambers who responded, the only issue that was identified by every single one of them was the skills and labour shortage. Transportation was obviously in there heavily, but the skills and labour shortage came up strongly as the single issue that needed to be tackled.
When we look at Canada, we see that the current estimates indicate that 100% of the net growth in the Canadian labour force will result from immigration by 2016. In B.C. we will reach that by 2011, so it is a more profound issue for British Columbia, in particular, than for many other jurisdictions. This is driven by an extremely buoyant labour market: employment in B.C. has risen by over 370,000 jobs since December 2001, and 90% of those jobs are full-time positions. Indeed, over this period, B.C. has had the highest employment growth rate in all of Canada. B.C. has an overall unemployment rate of 3.9%, as of February 2007. Seven out of ten of the top occupational categories have unemployment rates ranging from 0.5% to 3.3%. So structurally, as a province, B.C. is very close to, if not at, full employment, depending on which economist you talk to.
Further to this, it is estimated that over the period of 2003 to 2015, B.C. as an economy will create one million new job openings. It is important to note that this does not take into account the bump in employment that we will get from the 2010 Olympic Games. These are structural changes, through the growth of the economy, and don't take into account the Olympics.
During that same period, B.C. will graduate 650,000 students through the K to 12 system. Even if we were to keep all of those 650,000 students in British Columbia, it would still leave us with a shortfall of 350,000 job opportunities that cannot be filled by workers in the province.
Again, while the federal government and the province have made great strides with enhancements to the temporary foreign worker program, that is, the expansion of the provincial nominee program that we mentioned earlier, quite frankly, these changes are tinkering around the edges. In British Columbia, the need for workers requires structural reform to the immigration system. Quite simply, the current system is not capable of addressing the scope of the challenge. Fundamental reform is required.
I'd like to echo a comment made earlier that while immigration is looked at as the most significant means of addressing this, we do agree with the C.D. Howe Institute, for example, which has made comments that immigration is not the silver bullet or answer to our problem. But it is the most significant piece of the solution to the issue we actually face.
However, we must bear in mind that we are in a very competitive global environment for these skilled workers. Whether we look at that changes just introduced in the United Kingdom or the changes introduced in Australia, there are a number of jurisdictions that are making significant or fundamental reforms to their immigration systems, with a view to capturing the skilled, educated workforce essential to our success in the 21st century knowledge economy.
We would like to wrap up by saying that immigration can no longer be viewed as a domestic issue, nor can it be viewed, quite frankly, as a discussion of our role as a leader in humanitarian and refugee protection. We understand that the proposed changes will still enshrine our commitment in these areas. They are critical and essentials part of Canada's role in the world. But we are particularly pleased that the changes actually shift the focus of education or rather rebalance the focus of the immigration system onto the economy, as well as these other critical roles. We do feel that it has been missing.
If we look at family class reunification in British Columbia, there are just over 14,000 who were brought in here in 2007, compared with 16,000 skilled workers. We believe that shift or balance is not in the best interest of the economy, and we hope that through this process we can actually get into a situation of focusing on that.