Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise in this House to speak about the commitment of our government to strengthen families and about the provisions of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act on family reunification.
Families are both an anchor and a source of strength to newcomers. They represent the strongest possible foundation and roots for the health and prosperity of communities and of Canada as a whole. It is important to ensure that new families are vibrant and have the tools and resources needed to integrate, participate and feel a sense of belonging to Canada.
Over the past two years the government has achieved this objective through prudent management of the immigration program and a commitment to expanding and integrating the family class. From 1998 to 2001 the family class in Canada moved from 50,882 to 66,713. That represents an increase of almost 16,000 immigrants only in the family class in just four years.
However we felt this was not enough so the government introduced new regulations in 2002 to allow even more individuals to sponsor family members and to speed up the processing of family class applications.
We have expanded the family class to include common-law and conjugal partners of the opposite and same sex, and have increased the dependent age to 22. As well, we have reduced the age at which Canadian citizens are eligible to sponsor from 19 to 18 years and the period of sponsorship undertakings has been reduced in most cases from 10 to 3 years.
These are significant changes and they are designed to facilitate family reunification.
New application rules will assist in the faster processing of applications on behalf of spouses, common-law partners, conjugal partners and dependent children.
In making these changes, we took into account the need to increase people's ability to sponsor family members, while ensuring that the immigration program is managed in a balanced and efficient fashion. This approach clearly serves the best interests of everyone: Canadians, newcomers and our communities.
Currently the government is expanding the consultation process to ensure municipal leaders and other community stakeholders have a say in immigration matters. The overwhelming majority of newcomers to Canada settle in cities placing enormous demands on their resources, so their input is vital.
Earlier this week the minister met with municipal leaders in Ontario and over the coming months she will meet with other municipal leaders across the country. This dialogue will allow us to increase immigration levels in a way that benefits both the communities and the newcomers themselves.
Provincial stakeholders must be consulted before any changes are made that could radically change the balance between family class and economic immigrants since they could face insurmountable demands on health, educational and social services.
While government has met or exceeded annual immigration targets in the last three years, these targets are developed in close co-operation with stakeholders. We are determined to continue this trend of increasing family class over time but we must do so in a fair, balanced, sustainable and consultative way.
The changes proposed by the hon. member for Vancouver East in Bill C-436 runs counter to this process and to the principles of fairness, balance and consultation, and so we cannot support it.
Besides, Canadians or permanent residents who wish to sponsor someone not in the family class can already do so provided they have no family members living in Canada or abroad whom they could sponsor in the family class.
Bill C-436 would expand this concept to grant all citizens in Canada or permanent residents a once in a lifetime sponsorship opportunity, regardless of their circumstances, with little consideration given to their familiarity or relationship with a sponsored individual.
Under Bill C-436, anyone could sponsor nearly anyone else as a member of the undefined relative class without any thought to fiscal support or employability. The new person could then repeat the exercise, as could their sponsored applicant, and so on, creating a multiplier effect. The result would be an almost limitless chain of family class immigration based simply on loose associations.
If this proposal is adopted, not only will we need significant resources to deal with a larger number of cases, but we will also need proportionally more resources to deal with the family class applications, simply to maintain the existing ratio between family and economic class immigration.
Moreover, this could result in new frauds and it could undermine the integrity of the economic class immigration, since a significant number of economic class immigrants have distant relatives in Canada who could sponsor them.
We on this side of the House are committed to the principle of uniting families. I know the hon. member for Vancouver East's heart is in the right place but past experiences show that this should be done with appropriate intake controls in place to prevent abuse and to make sure that changes do not overwhelm the integration and immigration program.
We need to consult with local stakeholders to ensure increases in family class levels are achieved in a way that benefits everyone, and the minister plans to do that.
By following all of these processes, all Canadians can then be sure of a fair, efficient and equitable immigration program for many years to come.