Thank you, Mr. Chair and colleagues.
I am joined by Peter Sylvester, Associate Deputy Minister; Claudette Deschênes, who is obviously the Assistant Deputy Minister and whom you are very familiar with; Catrina Tapley, Associate Assistant Deputy Minister; and Amipal Manchanda, Chief Financial Officer.
Thank you, colleagues. Today, I am pleased to present to the committee supplementary estimates (C) 2011-2012.
I would like to use my appearance before this committee to thank all of you for the important report you submitted in the House of Commons last week, titled “Cutting the Queue: Reducing Canada's Immigration Backlogs and Wait Times.”
Your committee did a thorough job in examining this issue of backlogs and wait times in the immigration system. The evidence you gathered and the constructive recommendations you made will be very helpful for my department going forward, and I can assure you that a formal government response to the report will be forthcoming.
The Department of Citizenship and Immigration is keenly focused on finding solutions to the long-standing issue of wait times and backlogs. I would go even so far as to say that eliminating backlogs is possibly the biggest challenge for Canada's immigration system in general at this point in time.
As members of this committee are well aware, backlogs simply aren't fair. They aren't fair to those applicants hoping to immigrate to Canada, who can be forced to wait for years—sometimes eight years or longer—merely to find out whether their applications will be successful, in the meantime often putting their lives on hold, nor are they fair in serving Canada's interests; they hurt our economy. We need fast and uncomplicated procedures to get talented newcomers into Canada's labour market to meet immediate as well as longer-term needs and to help ensure that our country remains a destination of choice for the best and brightest from around the world.
Mr. Chair, there are people from every corner of the globe with skills our economy needs now, and they want to come to Canada. But it is hard to welcome them now if some of our focus is on processing people with skills we needed five years ago, or people we may not have needed then.
We hope to bring younger skilled immigrants to Canada because they will be active members of the Canadian workforce for much longer than older immigrants. We don't want those skilled immigrants growing older as they pointlessly wait in a queue for years before we can welcome them to Canada and make use of their talents.
As your report outlines, CIC has made a number of strides over the past few years in our efforts at reducing the backlogs that plague our immigration system, but we have some way to go before we can claim success. We are examining other possible ways of further reducing the backlogs, and many options are on the table.
We are looking at how other countries with similar immigration systems have dealt with this challenge. New Zealand and Australia have had notable success; for instance, by introducing changes in recent years that have made their systems nimbler and more flexible in dealing with modern labour market realities than before. Of course, as we continue to tackle this problem we will be taking into account the recommendations that this committee recently made.
You will note in the main estimates for the coming fiscal year that we are devoting additional resources toward our efforts in this area, although, as your committee understands, the problem with backlogs in our permanent residency programs is not a problem of a lack of operational resources. Canada has welcomed the highest sustained levels of immigration in our history over the past few years—more than a quarter of a million a year, on average—and we are welcoming the highest per capita number of immigrants in the developed world, at just under 0.8% of the population per year.
We are meeting our targets and in some years exceeding them. The problem is not that we are failing to meet targets because of a lack of operational resources. The problem, as you understand, was a policy mistake in the past that loaded into our system a potentially infinite number of applications, with the legal obligation to process all of them, even though, of course, in our managed immigration system we only admit a finite number of people based on our targets. The annual surplus of applications received over the number of immigrants admitted over time built up these huge backlogs, and they will not be eliminated without taking significant steps.
As you know, the government has introduced a number of measures in recent months that are designed to strengthen the integrity of the immigration system, whether it be our anti-fraud initiatives, our efforts to crack down on human smuggling, or the measures to further reform our refugee system, introduced last month as part of Bill C-31, the Protecting Canada 's Immigration System Act.
That bill contains important measures to provide legal authority for creating a biometric visa system. We plan to use biometrics as an identity-management tool in the immigration system beginning next year, and, of course, Bill C-31 will enable us to do so. Mr. Chair, I am very excited about this development because I think it is a long-needed and historic improvement to the integrity of our immigration system.
In our existing system, people who are applying to Canada for temporary resident visas or for study or work permits only need to initially provide written documents to support their applications. But documents can be easily forged or stolen. Biometric data—essentially photographs and fingerprints—are much more reliable and less prone to forgery or theft. Implementing biometrics will therefore strengthen immigration screening, enhance security, and help reduce identity fraud, and in so doing, we believe, it will facilitate the travel to Canada of legitimate visitors, because we will have a greater degree of confidence that they are who they claim to be, that they are admissible, that they do not pose a security risk. Over time, tools such as biometric visas could very well result in a higher acceptance rate for temporary resident visas and in better service for the many—the vast majority—who are bona fide travellers.
At the same time, it will prevent known criminals, failed refugee claimants, and previous deportees from using a false identity to obtain the Canadian visa. I can't stress how important this is. We are aware of many cases in which foreign criminals received convictions in Canadian courts and were lawfully deported, only to come back into Canada under false documents—fake passports—and when they went to obtain a visa at a Canadian mission with their fake documents, which looked authentic, we were unable to identify that they had been deported from Canada.
Some of these cases are shocking. We have the case of Anthony Hakim Saunders. He was deported ten times on convictions including assault and drug trafficking and kept coming back to Canada under false documents. We had Edmund Ezemo, convicted of more than thirty counts of criminal conduct, including theft and fraud; he was deported eight times and kept getting back into Canada—on fake documents, we presume. I suppose theoretically he could have snuck in across the U.S. land border or snuck in some other way, but we suspect that this individual came in under fake documents.
Dale Anthony Wyatt, convicted multiple times of trafficking of illegal substances and possession of illegal weapons, was deported four times and came back to Canada at least three times.
Mr. Chairman, this is unacceptable. It has to stop, and only a biometrics visa system will give us the tools to stop it.
In a time of global uncertainty, Mr. Chairman, and when our own domestic labour force is aging, the government recognizes that immigration is vital to our long-term economic health and international competitiveness. We want our immigration system to fuel our future prosperity. To let it do so, we need to select those newcomers who are ready, willing, and able to integrate into our labour market and fill roles in our economy that have existing shortages.
As the Prime Minister said in his speech in Davos, Switzerland, earlier this year:
...we have maintained the high levels of immigration that our ageing labour force of the future will require. .... We will ensure that, while we respect our humanitarian obligations and family reunification objectives, we make our economic...needs the central goal of our immigration efforts in the future.
And so far we have taken action toward that end.
We have introduced the Canadian experience class, allowing foreign students and higher skilled temporary foreign workers to transition into permanent residency on a fast-track basis, a model program for success for newcomers.
We've brought in the action plan for faster immigration, which has started to bring the number of applications under control, and the new applications under the identified occupational categories for those with a prearranged job are coming in on a fast-track basis.
We of course improved the integrity of the system, cracking down on crooked immigration consultants and on various forms of fraud, including most recently immigration marriage fraud.
We have worked with our provincial partners to improve foreign credential recognition of newcomers through the pan-Canadian framework. The result is that we've seen a much better geographic distribution of newcomers through our huge expansion of the provincial nominee program.
I could go on, but let me conclude by saying that I look forward in the months ahead to introducing additional and essential reforms that will constitute transformational change of Canada's immigration system to ensure that newcomers who arrive succeed, because when they succeed, Canada succeeds.
Thank you. I look forward to your questions.