I will try to be quicker than that, Mr. Chair. Thank you.
My thanks to all the members of the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration. It is a pleasure for me to appear before the committee for the first time since this Parliament began its work.
I would like to congratulate all the members of the committee on the activities they are undertaking. I would particularly like to thank the committee for choosing the backlog in our immigration system as its first study topic. This is quite a serious problem that we must all work together to resolve.
I am pleased to be here with some senior officials of Citizenship and Immigration Canada. We have our Deputy Minister, Mr. Neil Yates, our Assistant Deputy Minister, Strategic and Program Policy, Mr. Linklater and our Assistant Deputy Minister, Operations, Ms. Deschênes.
Mr. Chair, allow me to say that, as minister, I am very fortunate that the officials at all levels of the department are so capable and dedicated.
Mr. Chair, I would like to provide you with a presentation showing the principal elements of the problem of the backlog in our immigration system. I must say at the outset that the backlog problem is partly a reflection of the fact that Canada is the world's most desirable destination.
So I can tell you that the problem we have with inventories.... The technical term in the ministry is inventories; the common English is backlogs. Whatever we call them, they are partly a reflection of the fact that Canada is, I believe, the most desirable destination in the world. In fact, last year Ipsos Reid did a global poll, from which they estimated that at least two billion people around the world would like to emigrate to Canada right now. This includes 77% in China, 71% in Mexico, 68% in India, etc. They didn't actually survey every country of the world.
This is a reflection of the good problem we have, that Canada is seen as such a land of opportunity, prosperity, and democracy. This of course is why we must have a managed immigration system. The objective of that managed immigration system is to attract and select those people to Canada who will make the maximum economic contribution to our country, in part. It is in part to deal with the challenge of our shrinking labour force in the future because of our aging population. It's in part to try to counteract that aging demographic, so we have more people working and paying taxes, contributing to our country and economy and its prosperity in the future. Of course, as the country that now receives the highest per capita number of resettled refugees in the world, we also seek through our immigration programs to discharge our humanitarian obligations.
There's that huge, almost infinite, supply, if you will, of people who are what we would call in immigration policy a huge push factor from all around the world. How do we do in terms of receiving people? On slide 2 we can see that Canada has very high levels of immigration. In fact, over the course of the past five years our government has received the highest sustained level of immigration--that is to say, of permanent residents, not just temporary residents--of any government in Canadian history, with an average of 254,000 admissions. Admissions is a term that used to be called landings, but that basically means when someone comes here and has the right to stay permanently to work and to live in Canada. That compares to the previous 12 years, when the average was 222,000.
To put it in relative global terms, this represents about 0.8% of our population that we add on average per year. That is the highest per capita level of immigration in the developed world. I say the developed world because many third world or developing countries don't really have control of borders or managed immigration systems, so they're not a fair comparator. The only country that comes close to our levels right now would be New Zealand.
During and since the recent global economic downturn, many other countries actually cut their immigration levels. I'll give you one example. The United Kingdom has a population about twice our size, and they are right now restricting immigration to about 100,000 a year, when our average intake is a notch over a quarter of a million a year, so three to four times more on a per capita basis. That just gives you one point of comparison.
The backlog problem facing us is quite simple, in a way. Backlogs are a function of very simple mathematics.
Backlogs are a function of very simple, basic math. Here is the calculation. When you get more applications for immigration than you're able to admit, you end up with a backlog. When total applications exceed total admissions, you get a backlog. When that happens year after year after year, the backlog grows. As the backlog grows, of course so do processing times. Even though the time it takes our ministry to process a particular application may shrink through operational efficiency, the total time it takes someone to go from the point of application to the point of admission gets longer. This is not because of operational inefficiencies but because they're simply waiting in a growing queue.
The inverse mathematical formula is when the total number of admissions exceeds the total number of applications, backlogs shrink and processing times speed up.
I invite you to remember this basic mathematical formula through today's hearing and during all of your studies. There are a lot of interesting issues to be discussed, but at the end of the day it's a very simple mathematical problem.
Let's see how this works out in any given year. I'll just take, for example, 2008, which is the last year for which we have full stats, and it's an average year in terms of numbers for the past several years.
So, on page 5, we can see
--and I hope you see that we have these video screens--that we established an operational target for 2008 for admissions in the range of a quarter of a million, which is about average for the past several years. We assessed those applications and we found that about a quarter of a million met our criteria and could come to Canada, and about another 100,000 applications were rejected. But here's the problem. We received about 450,000 applications. That is to say that the total number of applications that we received exceeded the total number that we were able to consider that year by about 100,000. This is the problem we've had year after year.
Another way we could look at this is to think if we were to actually try to process everyone who would like to make an application, based on the Ipsos Reid poll, that would be over two billion people. I just throw that in there just to give us a sense of perspective about how much supply there is versus our capability to accommodate that demand to come to Canada.
As another way of looking at this, a metaphor I often use is to look at how a transport company would sell tickets, because it's a good way of considering the problem of backlogs.
This is essentially what happened. The problem really picked up momentum following the adoption of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act by the previous government in 2001, because that act created a legal obligation on my department, on the government, to process all new applications to a final decision, regardless of how many people we plan to admit or practically could admit. So there was, frankly, I would say, an irresponsible policy decision that threw completely out of alignment the number of incoming applications with an obligation to process them versus the capacity to admit people and settle them in Canada. That is one of the primary reasons we've seen this problem.
So one way of explaining this metaphorically would be to say that over the past decade or so the Government of Canada was on an annual average basis selling 400,000 or more tickets on the plane to Canada to that market of two billion people who would like to buy those tickets. Yet even though we've been maintaining our highest average levels of immigration in our history, the highest averages in the developed world, unprecedented levels of immigration to a developed country, notwithstanding that, we've been admitting about, on average, a quarter of a million people. It was a little less than that under the previous government, a little more than that under the current government.
So every year selling 400,000-plus tickets, admitting, let's say for sake of argument, a quarter of a million people, what does that mean? It means 150,000 customers, if you will, who bought their tickets to Canada, who paid their fees, and those fees went into our general revenue fund and we cashed those cheques. And they end up at the airport, saying, “What happened? You oversold the plane by 35% and we're left sitting here.” We say, “Yes, sorry about that”. Next year we come back and we sell another 400,000 tickets. We say there are a quarter of a million spots on the plane to Canada and then that crowd at the airport grows to 300,000 the next year. Then the third year we do it again. The next thing you know there's a growing number; in fact, there are 450,000 in the backlog. Year after year, that's how you end up with a backlog of over a million people.
Here I will admit that our government did not act quickly enough to reverse the policy mistake of our predecessors to align the number of applications with a capacity to accept newcomers to Canada. This is not the fault of one government. We must accept some of the responsibility for not having acted more quickly to better align applications with admissions. This is why we've now ended up with a total backlog in all programs of just over a million. In fact, I think it has just gone back down below that.
Let's look at this over time, in the past decade. On slide 8 you'll see that in 2001 the backlog was just under 700,000. But here's the interesting thing. The bottom line shows the immigration target. This is what we call our operational target. And you'll see that it's gone up over the course of the past decade to about a quarter of a million a year.
The red line above it shows the number of applications received, and as you can see, the number of applications received over the past several years is consistently over 400,000. That means there is a consistent, perpetual surplus of applications over admissions. And because of the basic math formula I talked about, that's why you see the growing backlog.
The backlog, incidentally, was at about 150,000 when our government came to office in 2006. The good news is that in some of the programs we've begun reducing the backlog, and I'll address that in a moment.
What are the possible solutions? Well, they really boil down to two very simple possible solutions. One would be a massive increase in the level of immigration to Canada, by orders of magnitude. So if we wanted to just maintain what we would call a working inventory, or a just-in-time immigration system, without limiting the number of new applications, then we would have to increase overall immigration levels to over 400,000 a year. That's a massive increase, an increase by orders of magnitude.
Or we could limit new applications, find ways to control incoming applications or at least our obligation to process new applications. Or we could do a combination of both.
Let me just say that there are some people suggesting that we actually open up whole new huge avenues of immigration to Canada. For example, I believe my friend Mr. Davies suggested recently that we find a pathway to permanent residency for all temporary foreign workers. Excluding those who already have a pathway to permanent residency, that would mean adding about 140,000 additional people to the immigration queue.
So if we want to prevent the further growth of backlogs merely by increasing admissions, we'd have to increase admissions to over 400,000. If we then wanted to add new PR programs, as Mr. Davies has suggested for temporary foreign workers, we'd have to increase it by about another 140,000, and that would bring us up to well over half a million permanent resident landings per year to Canada. And a valid argument could be made for that. I don't think there are many Canadians who support that, but if that's where people want to go and if that's where parliamentarians or this committee want to go, I invite you to be explicit about wanting to invite over half a million immigrants, essentially more than doubling immigration levels to Canada. Let Canadians participate in that debate.
I have a little dynamic video here and I have a mad scientist here who is going to show what happens when you try to do this. Some have said we should just increase processing resources for the department. Give Claudette more money to hire more visa officers around the world so they can make these decisions faster. And that's one of the suggestions that's come from the opposition, faster processing. Well, here you can see what happens when you're trying to take the demand—that is to say, the number of applications we get—and put it through a funnel, so it goes slowly. The number of people coming, the volume that is received, comes through that funnel, but you see it goes up to the number of people we can accept, which is about a quarter of a million.
Let's say that we hire a whole bunch more visa officers and process the applications faster. Well, guess what. You end up with just the same number of people admitted to Canada. So that's not a solution. Let me put it this way. Backlogs are not a function of a scarcity of operational resources in the department. Yes, our department could always function more efficiently, and we are doing that. In fact, I'll get into this perhaps in questions and answers. Through our implementation of, for example, our global case management system—which is a new worldwide electronic IT platform—together with other aspects of modernization, we are seeing our whole system operate more efficiently. But at the end of the day, if there's not an alignment between the number of new applications and the number of admissions, it doesn't matter how quickly you can process them. You could hit your targets in the first quarter of the year, and if the surplus of applications over admissions ends up waiting in the airport lounge, so what?
I'm someone who believes we should listen to Canadians on immigration.
I do not want to see here the problems that we see in Europe, for example, where immigration policies do not reflect the will of the public. In Canada, fortunately, people are on the whole in favour of immigration and diversity.
I want to keep our minds open in that way, Mr. Chair, but I am conscious of the fact that about 80% of Canadians tell us that immigration levels must be frozen at present levels or reduced.
Consistently, only about 10% of Canadians indicate that immigration levels are too low. About eight out of ten Canadians are saying that they're too high or high enough. There was a study that came out this week that points out that immigrants to Canada are those who are least likely to support increased immigration levels, and that's consistent in the polling.
Let's look at how we might fix the problem. In 2008 we had to overcome opposition, but we managed to pass Bill C-50, which gave the minister the capacity to limit the number of incoming applications. This power we have applied to the federal skilled worker backlog—that is, the point system. Had we not taken those actions, the federal skilled worker backlog would now be over a million. But as a result of limiting those applications to 10,000 a year, we are at 475,000 overall, so we've had a significant reduction.
We've applied the same logic to the investor immigrant program, and we are doing the same thing with the privately sponsored refugee program. But there's one program where we have seen real problems with backlogs and we've not applied that logic—parents and grandparents. The backlog when our government came to office was 108,000; it's now 160,000. Last year we received almost 38,000 applications for the program. On average, over the course of the past decade, we've been admitting about 18,000 people. Just to freeze the backlog would require that we double the number of parents and grandparents coming to about 38,000 a year, which would be moving that up from about 6% to maybe 14% of total immigration to Canada. That would mean cutting economic immigration. Increasing admissions to that program, even doubling them, will not eliminate or even significantly reduce the backlog in the program. We could not achieve this even if we cut applications in half.
My hope, my vision, is that by using some common sense, we can in the next few years arrive at a just-in-time immigration program where applications received for our various programs are processed in the same year, and people are admitted without having to wait longer than a year. I hope that we can have a constructive debate about how to get to that just-in-time immigration system.