Thank you, Mr. Chair.
I am very happy to be here with you today. It is the first time a Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship has appeared before this committee. The word “Refugees” has been added to the title of the department by the Prime Minister.
I think it's significant that the Prime Minister added “Refugees” to my title, because it signals strong support and respect for refugees and the role they play in our country, as I think can be seen by the actions we have taken today.
I am pleased as well to introduce two of our assistant deputy ministers, Dawn Edlund and Catrina Tapley.
I would like to make a fairly brief presentation and then be open to questions.
As the chair indicated, perhaps the first thing to talk about are the Syrian refugees. I'm an economist, and have typically been involved in dollars-and-cents issues, one might say. This is more a matter of the heart, a matter to define who we as Canadians are. I think that message has gone out. I think Canadians have responded very warmly. As I have said many times, I see this as a national project, not a federal government project. We have seen the response of Canadians from all walks of life across the country.
I think our message has also gone out around the world. The photograph of the Prime Minister meeting the first plane really did go around the world, to the point where, when I was in Jordan visiting a UNICEF centre, the little children there who knew nothing about Canada, and were not applying to come here, told me they had heard that our Prime Minister had met Syrians in Toronto a few days ago. If little refugee children in Jordan knew about it, I think many people around the world did.
I can also say that we are making good progress. As of the 21st of February, 23,098 Syrian refugees have landed, so I think it's safe to say that we're well on track to hit our 25,000 commitment by the end of this month.
After that, or indeed all the time, I would say, the major challenge has been not so much to transport the people from there to here, as it is to settle them well in Canada. That is and has been our major challenge. Nothing of this nature goes perfectly smooth. There are always hiccups along the way, but I think it is going well in terms of helping the refugees find housing, learn English or French, get jobs, and settle down as regular Canadians, just as has been the case with previous waves of refugees in our history.
As the chair said, I have been open during this process. I shared good and bad news with the media, when there were problems related to exit visas or other issues. I mentioned them.
My idea has been to go together on this trip with Canadians. If it's a national project, I think Canadians should know the ups and the downs along the way. I hope I've been open with Canadians on that, as I think I'm being open with you today.
The idea was for me to talk about what's in my mandate letter. I won't talk about everything in the mandate letter. I'm very happy to answer any questions you may have, but I'd like to just describe a few points. Some of the things in the mandate letter are pretty simple to do. It's like black or white, on or off. You turn off a switch or you turn on a switch; for example, refugee health care. We have re-established that to the point where it's the same now as it was in 2012. We've also added additional benefits in terms of payment for medical exams overseas and inoculations, which are good for the refugees and good for Canada's public health. That's done.
The Citizenship Act we will do in coming days. As we have said many times, we believe there should be one tier, not two tiers of Canadian citizenship. A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian. Certainly that central aspect of this bill will become evident very soon.
There's one element in my mandate letter that is much more complicated, much more difficult to achieve, and more time consuming. It's not just turning something on or turning something off. That has to do with improving the processing times for family class immigrants. If I had to say what my number one priority is, that would have to be it. Over the last 10 years, the processing times for virtually every class of newcomer, with the exception of economic immigrants, has mushroomed, has escalated to the point where I think it is unacceptable for Canada to ask spouses to wait typically 24 months before they are reunited, versus waiting periods like six to eight months in other countries to which we compare ourselves, like the U.K., the U.S., and Australia.
Not just for spouses but for family class in general, my top priority is to bring down these processing times quickly. We will have targets for this that we will post and we will work extremely hard to achieve those targets. We had an ambitious target of 25,000 for Syrian refugees, and we will have an equally ambitious target to reduce the processing times over coming years for family class immigrants.
The committee is master of its own work. Ministers certainly don't tell you what to do, but I would suggest that you might want to look at this whole process of high levels of processing times and how we will achieve reductions, because I'm working on this on what one might say are three fronts.
First I'm talking to you, and you may or may not decide to do a study to be a part of this effort.
Second, I will be having a retreat with senior members of the officials of my department plus political staff to brainstorm on this to work towards setting goals; to work towards doing our processes radically differently, faster, and more efficiently in order to achieve objectives; and before too long, to set objectives for bringing down those processing times.
The third front is that I will be announcing relatively soon an external advisory group of experts who will also help to achieve this radical reduction in processing times for family class immigrants.
With my department working closely with me and with my staff to achieve this, plus this external group, plus if it is your desire, your own work in this area, we can work on these three fronts, and I think we can achieve meaningful progress in the not too distant future.
Mr. Chair, I think my preliminary remarks have been long enough.
I would now be pleased to answer the questions of members of the committee.
Thank you very much.