Thank you, Chairman, and thank you, colleagues.
I'm sure you all know our senior officials quite well. We have Deputy Minister Neil Yeates; assistant deputy minister for operations, Claudette Deschênes; ADM for policy, Les Linklater; and Daniel Paquette, CFO—our chief financial officer.
Thank you, Mr. Chair and colleagues. I am pleased today to present to the committee my department's supplementary estimates (B) for fiscal year 2011-2012.
The major components of the 2011-12 supplementary estimates (B) include net new appropriations of $53.4 million. The most significant items include: $33.3 million to support the Interim Federal Health Program; $11.7 million to continue work on the inclusion of biometrics in the temporary visa stream—this is a project we started two years ago that will come into effect in 2013; and $9.5 million to continue to modernize the immigration system and manage backlogs. This is of course the subject of your current study.
As you know, in 2008 we introduced the action plan for faster immigration, which gives the minister of citizenship and immigration the ability to control the number and type of new applications we receive. Under the action plan we can now focus our efforts in the federal skilled worker category on bringing in people with the skills who are most likely to succeed in Canada. Those applying as federal skilled workers must now have experience in one of the 29 identified in-demand occupations and have an arranged offer of employment, or, as we announced earlier this month, must have studied at the PhD level in Canada.
The new PhD initiative, together with the Canadian experience class that we launched in 2008, represents what we hope is the future of immigration to Canada: typically bright young people who have Canadian education or work experience that will be recognized by Canadian employers, and who have improved or perfected their English or French language skills. Such newcomers are set for success in Canada.
We've also capped, at 10,000 per year, the number of new applications we will accept in the federal skilled worker program, to help further reduce the backlog of federal skilled workers.
As I explained at my last appearance, and as you can see on the charts to the side here, the controls we introduced in 2008 to manage the intake of new federal skilled worker applications have helped to reduce the backlog very significantly. We've reduced the backlog of 640,000 people by more than 50%.
While we are making progress on the federal skilled worker program, clearly there are other stresses in the system. In the parents and grandparents category, for example, there are currently about 165,000 people with their applications in process. That is why earlier this month we announced the first phase of the action plan for faster family reunification.
The four points in phase 1 of our action plan have three ultimate goals: reduce the backlog; speed up processing times; and make it easier for parents and grandparents to visit.
First, we will increase the number of parents and grandparents admitted to Canada by 60%, from an operational target of just over 15,000 this year to 25,000 next year. This will be the highest number of parents and grandparents admitted to Canada in nearly two decades.
Second, as of December 1, parents and grandparents will be eligible for a new 10-year, multiple-entry parent and grandparent super visa. Under this visa, they will be able to stay for up to two years at a time, without the need to renew their temporary resident status. The new super visa will also ensure that parents and grandparents can come to Canada sooner. They will now be able to visit with families in Canada, in principle—we hope, in many cases—in eight weeks, instead of waiting the current average time of eight years for permanent residency applications to be processed. They will also be required to obtain and demonstrate to us that they have acquired health care insurance for their visit to Canada, to help protect the interests of Canadian taxpayers during their visit. This will help us to ensure the integrity of this program.
Third, starting in the new year, the government will consult widely on how to redesign the parents and grandparents program in the future so that it is sustainable over the long term. Of course, the findings of the committee study on backlogs will factor heavily into informing our consultations. I mean that sincerely. We do hope that your report will delve into the issue of how we can eliminate these long backlogs and manage these programs in a more responsible and sustainable way in the future.
In order for this program to be sustainable, it must be redesigned to avoid future backlogs. I made this point at my last presentation, Chair. The problem on this is a simple one. It's a question of math. When applications exceed admissions, over time we end up with growing backlogs and longer wait times. When admissions exceed applications, the backlog and wait times shrink. It's a question of math. The problem is that we've been receiving on average up to 40,000—in some years up to 50,000—applications for parents and grandparents per year, far beyond our ability to admit that many people. So the Government of Canada has been, I would argue, a little bit disingenuous, making promises that we could not keep. I think all of us, regardless of our party orientation or philosophical approach, could agree that we must do a much better job of only accepting roughly the number of applications relative to the number of people who we are able to admit. The question is, how do you do that?
The parents and grandparents program must also be sensitive to our fiscal constraints, obviously, such as our generous public health care system and other social benefits. We will need to ensure that we admit a number of grandparents and parents whose families can afford to support them.
I have therefore asked my officials to look at how we can better manage this program, and right now we're examining a range of options.
Some of these include proposals already raised during the committee's study on backlogs.
For example, in order to reduce the number of applications, we could perhaps look at changing the requirement for sponsorship. One way we could do this would be to increase the minimum income threshold for sponsors, or increase the length of time a sponsor must meet that threshold. This would ensure that sponsors are well settled and have the ongoing financial ability to support family members, or we could adopt an approach similar to that of Australia, which is known as the “balance of family” test. This option would prioritize parents or grandparents who already have the majority of their children living permanently in Canada.
Another suggestion I've heard, I think perhaps at this committee, is prioritizing applications for widowed parents or grandparents who have no immediate family in their country of origin and for whom one could make a stronger humanitarian case for reunification.
To reduce the fiscal burden of parents and grandparents on our generous social services and health care system, another option could involve requiring sponsors to cover their health care costs through an upfront bond. I believe that immigrant lawyer Richard Kurland suggested such a tool at this committee.
We intend to make all the options publicly available once my officials have compiled a list, before our consultations begin, in early 2012.
There will be lots of opportunity for Canadians to state their opinions and weigh in on this debate.
The fourth and final point in phase one of our action plan is a temporary pause of up to 24 months on the acceptance of new sponsorship applications in this category. A temporary pause will enable us to bring down the backlog until wait times are shorter and more reasonable. This part of our plan is absolutely essential. If we were to leave the program open for applications during this period of consultation and redesign, there's no doubt, based on previous experience, that our system would be flooded with new applications and the backlog would go from 165,000 to over 200,000. In fact, as you know, we've estimated, based on current trends and not taking such measures, we would be looking at a backlog of 340,000, I believe, with a 20-year wait time by the end of the decade. It's our hope that within the next two years we will be able to cut the backlog of parents and grandparents applications roughly in half, to a more manageable size.
Phase two of our action plan will take place after our consultations to redesign the program. Our vision for phase two is a more efficient immigration system. The end result will be faster family reunification and a program that is sustainable over the long term.
Mr. Chairman, once newcomers arrive here in Canada, our priority is to help them integrate as quickly as possible. That's why we've tripled the settlement funding since 2006, making more services like language training available to newcomers.
The government has placed a renewed focus on integration of immigrants into Canadian society. We believe that in order to succeed in Canada, you need to speak either English or French. You need to know about Canadian culture and Canadian history.
While we are committed to helping newcomers succeed, the government must also manage tax dollars responsibly. As this committee is aware, we are engaged in a review across the government in order to reduce spending and balance the budget, as we are at CIC. For 2011-12, funding for settlement services in provinces and territories outside of Quebec was reduced by $53 million. In 2012-13 it will be reduced by $6 million, for a total reduction of $59 million. But even after those reductions, the total spending outside of Quebec will be $600 million, three times more than the $200 million allocation in 2005.
To advance fairness and meet settlement needs across Canada, starting next year allocations for all jurisdictions outside Quebec will be determined using a new national settlement formula. This formula is based on the number of immigrants that each province and territory receives, and it gives additional weight for refugees. This will ensure equal and fair funding across the country, with the exception of Quebec, which has a separate formula because of their accord.
Chairman, the Government of Canada is committed to helping new immigrants and their families succeed. We believe that funding for settlement services must follow immigrants so that services make their way into the communities where they settle.
The 2012 settlement allocations will continue to build on this trend and distribute funding more fairly across the country. I should note that in the last five years we have seen a significant change in settlement patterns: a decline in the number of immigrants settling in Ontario, particularly in Toronto, and a large increase in the west, particularly in the Prairie provinces.
Mr. Chair, my officials and I are now prepared to answer any questions the committee may have.