Interview with immigration minister Jason Kenney; Unpublished extracts

3 Oct
Jason Kenney Toronto immigration

Jason Kenney

At the weekend, I interviewed Canadian immigration minister Jason Kenney for a piece published today by the Daily Telegraph.

Kenney told me why he thought young, educated British people who may be looking for work overseas should choose Canada over Australia.

Although Canada’s one of the top destinations for British expats, a trip to sunny Oz is seen by many younger Brits, raised on a TV diet of Home and Away and Neighbours, as an essential rite-of-passage.

I can understand the appeal; I spent three months there after uni. And yes, I visited Summer Bay (the surf shack was closed but I did get to sit on the bench of woe), as well as the Neighbours set (disappointingly, just a suburban street).

Jason Kenney immigration Toronto

Me at the Summer Bay surf shack, back in the heady days of 2004. When pink and blue was apparently a good wardrobe option.

Kenney’s comments, and Australia’s official response, are covered in the Telegraph article. But other areas covered in the interview included:

*The thousands of foreign health professionals in Canada unable to practice their profession due to problems checking their qualifications

*Charges of xenophobia: “That just cheapens very important and loaded language”

*The controversial cancellation of 280,000 residency applications made before February 2008 that had been held in a queue for up to nine years

*Proposals to charge people to phone immigration call centres

Here are some selected extracts (Warning: You might like to skip to the bits that most interest you).

Cancelling the application backlog

JK:  “It was taking 7 or 8 years to process applications, which basically rendered the whole programme dysfunctional. The program was becoming, it was just broken from the point of view of attracting very talented and mobile people. Why would you wait in the back of a queue for 7 years if you could get to Australia right away? Well you wouldn’t. And I think that’s a large reason why a lot of Brits were choosing Australia over Canada, it’s just the speed of their system.

“…I feel badly for those people, I regret what happened to their applications, and I invite them to apply for a new and faster program. But at the end of the day, it was necessary. Otherwise it would’ve taken us a decade to get to a fast and responsive system. It wasn’t working for the immigrants or Canada or for employers.”

Why clearing the backlog of pre-2008 applications was predicted to take until “late 2017 or early 2018”

The reason this is important: In March 2012, the government decided to cancel 280,000 applications from foreigners who’d waited up to nine years for a decision on whether they could move to Canada through the skilled migrant programme.

The applications had all been received before February 2008. Legal challenges are underway.

The decision was justified on the grounds that it would’ve taken until 2017 to process them all, affecting Canada’s ability to deal with new applications effectively.

BUT: In November 2008, the backlog was estimated at 641,000 applicants. Three years later, this was halved. So why would it take 6-7 years from 2011 to clear the remaining 320,000?

JK: “It’s just a question of math really. We’re admitting 65,000 skilled workers per year, both principal applicants and their family members. And so, even if we were to completely freeze applications, it would take a few years…to bring that inventory down to zero.

“…The number of admissions in the skilled worker program have gone down as we’ve expanded other programs. We used to bring in 120,000 skilled workers a year. That’s down to about 65,000. And the difference has gone to provinces to select immigrants, which has been tremendously positive effect of a better geographic spread of immigrants across the country. So we, the government, ceded some selection power, to provinces, particularly in the west and Canada, there’s been a huge growth in these provincial nominee programmes, which brings in skilled trades people…and reduced the intake. And we were bringing in more skilled workers in the early years than we are now, hence reducing the backlog takes longer. Sorry if I didn’t make that clear before. If you’re sitting on a 320,000 person inventory, even if you’re taking in applications, it’s going to take us five years to draw that down, admitting 65,000 a year. It’s just a math problem. Sorry, I’ve never talked to journalists who are interested in this level of detail.”

Note: Following a supplementary question to Kenney’s office, I received the following reply:
“Our projections showed that it would have taken until 2017 to eliminate the backlog due to the volume of applications that had already been received, projected new applications, and operational constraints. Although the number of federal skilled workers processed each year has remained high, the government determined that having to process applications that were submitted as many as eight years ago reduces our ability to focus on new applicants with the skills and talents that our economy needs today. The government has placed top priority on attracting immigrants who have the skills and experience our economy needs.”

Labour shortages:
“There are huge shortages, especially in the west, for the welders and boiler makers and heavy equipment operators and I think there are a lot of people with those skills in Britain who’d find huge opportunities in Canada. But also, it’s right across the skills spectrum. For example, there are shortages in the IT sector. Just to give you one example, you’d think that a dream job for a lot of young guys would be programming video games. Well, there’s an acute shortage of video game programmers in the very large industry here, Montreal and Vancouver, so the opportunities are endless.”

Turning temporary jobs into permanent residency:
“For someone who doesn’t yet have a job lined up, and they’re not quite sure what to do, if they come through that visa [International Experience Canada] they then get to know how to find a job in Canada, they land something decent for 12 months, they could eventually stay as a permanent resident. They’ll often be working pouring pints in a pub in Toronto or in a ski hill out west for the first three or six months. But if they’re thinking long term, and they land a skilled job for 12 months, then we’re gonna invite them to stay permanently.”

Rising immigration
“We believe immigration is important to help fuel our future prosperity and to counteract our increasing age of our labour force. We have very acute labour shortages. We see immigration as a solution to that problem, but not the solution, because for us merely to maintain our average age through immigration would require that we more than quadruple levels to more than a million a year, about 4 per cent of population per year and there’s absolutely no public support for that.

“So even though Canadians are generally pro-immigration, welcoming towards newcomers, there are some real caveats attached to that. Canadians are four times more likely to say ‘cut immigration levels’ than they are to say ‘increase them’. So 45 per cent of the population say we should reduce levels, about 40 per cent say keep them around what they’re at and around 10 per cent say increase levels. I think it’s very important that we don’t end up disconnecting immigration policy from popular opinion.

“This is a mistake I think was made in European countries, where I think political elites became completely disconnected on immigration and this helped, I think to fuel the backlash that we see in many European countries…It’s very important to keep an attentive ear to the public’s sense of our capacity to integrate newcomers, which is large but limited. And so consequently, I think it’s unrealistic to see any significant increase in levels in the foreseeable future.

“My focus is more on quality than quantity. For three decades we’ve seen economic results for newcomers on the decline. Immigrants now make, on average, 60 per cent of the average income. It used to be, in the mid/late 70s, 90 per cent. The unemployment rate for immigrants is twice as high as it is in the general population, the unemployment rate for immigrants with uni degrees is 4 times higher than it is for Canadians with uni degrees. My focus is on turning those numbers around, selecting people who are more likely to find and keep good jobs or start successful businesses immediately upon arrival.

“If, over time, we see that the rate of unemployment for newcomers approaches that of the general population, and that the average income levels are increased to the general average, then I think argument might be raised for raising levels, but until then we’d be doing no-one any favours to increase the number of folks who end up being under-employed or under employed.”

The estimated 6,000 to 10,000 foreign doctors unable to work in their profession due to problems checking their qualifications
[Me; do you agree those figures are accurate?] JK: I suppose so. Of course there’s a joke in Toronto, the safest place in the city in which to have a heart attack is the back of a taxi cab because of all the underemployed physicians. It’s a much broader problem than just for physicians, this problem of credential recognition, and essentially we’ve been accepting huge numbers of immigrants through our skilled worker programme, often coming from developing countries, who‘ve come with the expectation that they’d be able to work in their licensed profession, only to find there’s a length and often very rigid process to get their credentials recognised by the college of physicians or engineers, and the other 40 regulated professions. This is a big issue in Canada. We’re working with the provinces, investing $15million in a process with the provincial governments, who are responsible for labour market regulation, to simplify and speed up the process for recognising those credentials.

“The problem is this, though. We want to give people a fair shot of getting their license to practice without lowering the Canadian standard, and the difficulty is that many people who come here, often from developing countries, don’t actually arrive at the Canadian standard for training and that’s one of the problems our immigration reforms are designed to fix, by in the future doing a pre assessment of the credentials of the people who want to work in licensed professions. This is what Australia started doing a few years ago….Because what’s the point of leaving wherever, your underdeveloped country where you’re working as a doctor, in order to drive a cab or work in a corner store in Canada?

“…Some of the provinces who regulate the professionals and the health system have been quite creative in identifying foreign doctors who they know can work with a license on arrival. So they’re been going to places like South Africa, to recruit doctors to work in remote communities, basically on a contract. Because in a province like Saskatchewan, no one wants to go and work in a little medical clinical or a small rural clinic in a small rural town: When I say no-one, no Canadian doctors. So it’s an inducement to get those rural communities served.

“One last problem is that because of the rationed management of our health services by the provinces, they want to limit the number of licensed physicians who can bill because they regard each additional licensed physician with a billing number as an incremental cost for their systems that are becoming ridiculously expensive. So they’re rationing the number of residency positions that lead to licenses. ….We don’t even have enough residency positions for Canadian grads and Canadians who’ve done their residency abroad. Why would we be bringing in physicians from abroad to add to that category when there are not enough spots available?”

[Me; Can federal pressure be put on the provinces by holding back funding?] JK: “We’ve looked at that, there’s really no legal stick that we can use, in the constraints of the federation we really can’t. Because, after all, it’s the exercising of their constitutional authority over labour market regulations. We don’t have the constitutional authority to penalise them for allowing some of the professional bodies to maintain unreasonable procedures. There are 10 provinces, 40 licensed professions. We’re bringing each of those around the table to hammer out a streamlined, faster process. The explicit objective of which is to give applicants an answer on their credential recognition within a year of their application.”

Claims that Canadian immigration policy reflects xenophobia or underlying racism:
“Many of our significant immigration reforms have been misinterpreted by some people, typically on the left, as being somehow anti-immigrant. It’s manifestly absurd to say that the country with highest levels of per capita immigration in the developed world, the highest sustained levels in Canadian history, the highest naturalisation rate in the world, is xenophobic and anti-immigrant. It’s bizarre. That just cheapens very important and loaded language.

“…But the reality is, that too many newcomers have been struggling. Our old immigration system just dropped people into the general immigration market to sink or swim and many were struggling to keep their head above water. By the way, immigrants to Canada are more likely to say we should reduce levels then people born in Canada. This is not xenophobia, this is just a reflection of the public’s intuitive sense of our capacity to integrate people.”

Budget cuts affecting immigration services
“To be honest we’re a government bureaucracy, so we get a flat level of resources. [With] ever increasing demand for services, consequently people wait longer and don’t get the service they should. So I’m actually exploring ways that we can operate in a more sensible business-like fashion. For example, I’d like to maybe operate a call centre on a more commercial basis, so if you’re going to place a call it’s a $5-10 dollar charge, that reduces frivolous calls. That allows us to hire more people and provide a better service. Those are the kinds of solutions I’m looking at.”

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