A comprehensive overhaul of our immigration and refugee protection system

GPC 2015 platform background papers

Immigration is first and foremost about citizenship. Any reform must be accomplished in a way that strengthens our social fabric and is consistent with our fundamental values of the rule of law, equality, and fairness. The Green Party reforms will ensure an efficient and predictable path to citizenship for all immigrants and their families.

Would-be Canadians who look at our immigration policies and processes might think they are designed to keep people away. The admission system is fragmented, complicated, confusing, and slow, and many newcomers who make it to our shores never get the opportunities for a better life they were led to expect. The Conservative administration has made the system unpredictable and increasingly chaotic.  The measures it has pushed through, without adequate public debate, are mostly wrong-headed, from effectively eliminating family reunification, to expanding the arbitrary powers of the Minister of Immigration. We need to look at immigration from a national perspective, not just from the viewpoint of a federal or provincial government, an employer or an educational institution.


Canada’s immigration and refugee protection system is a critical component of our social and economic fabric. It is a reflection of our values. Immigrants have always been crucial to building Canada and enriching both our economy and society. Immigration now accounts for all net labour force growth. By 2030, 100% of our population growth will come through immigration (about 60% already does).  It is an exciting time to be Canadian – we have enormous potential.  Canadians from all corners of the globe are building one of history’s most fascinating, diverse and cosmopolitan nations.

Who would have imagined a Canada where potential refugees arriving on our shores face immediate incarceration?  These changes and others brought in by the Harper administration project a whole new image of who we are.

Regrettably, however, our immigration and refugee protection system is not prepared for 21st-century realities or challenges. A system with more than 50 entry streams that by 2010 had produced a backlog of one million applications, many of which languished in the queue for up to five or six years, is at best a dysfunctional nightmare. It is an embarrassment to a country like Canada that increasingly depends on interconnectedness with the rest of the world.

For the lucky ones who make it through the byzantine process and arrive here, the recognition of their educational credentials and work experience still takes many more years — or may never happen at all.

The evidence is all too clear that the latest wave of immigrants, although many are better educated than their predecessors, have more trouble getting jobs, reuniting their families, and finding proper housing and health services.

The huge mismatch between the skills of new Canadians and their actual employment here is astonishing. A large number of immigrants with university degrees now work in chronically low-income jobs, compared with only 13% in 1993, before the immigration laws were changed to encourage more educated immigrants to come to Canada. For many, there is a real sense of exclusion within a society that fails to give them equal opportunity in practice.

We need a comprehensive overhaul of our immigration and refugee protection system. Any serious change must start with a fundamental principle: immigration is about citizenship. We are first and foremost welcoming future citizens.  The goal of our immigration system must be to maximize the chances of successful integration for all new Canadians and their families.

The good news is that our federal government has recognized the need for urgent action to improve the process by which some quarter-million people enter Canada as immigrants or refugees each year.  For example, the proposal that citizenship applicants be present in Canada for four out of six years, instead of three out of four, seems reasonable. The bad news is that too often the government avoids parliamentary debate and rushes through haphazard immigration reforms that would normally benefit from widespread public input and discussion, and require formal legislative change. As a result, some reforms offend our basic democratic values and the rule of law, while others are ill-thought-out and badly-executed. These include the following:

  • expanding without sufficient justification the arbitrary powers of the Minister of Immigration;
  • abruptly wiping hundreds of thousands of people off the waiting list that they had been forced to endure because of Canadian administrative failure;
  • encouraging the casual employment of huge numbers of temporary workers with no attachment to Canada;
  • imposing a moratorium on family reunification despite the undisputed importance of family support to an individual’s success in working and contributing to their community and country. (The moratorium was lifted in January 2014, but this change effectively benefits only wealthy families.)
  • terminating health benefits for many refugee claimants, a policy struck down by the Federal Court in 2014 as unconstitutional;
  • raising the citizenship processing fee twice in 2014 arbitrarily – from $100 per adult to $300 in February, to $530 in December.

The upshot of all this is an immigration system which is currently characterized by incoherence and a seeming distrust of new Canadians. The Green Party’s reforms will ensure an efficient and predictable path to citizenship for all immigrants and their families.   Conservative changes that do not serve this goal, such as the effective elimination of family reunification, will be repealed.

We need intelligent and open public debate to build a coherent, fair, and efficient immigration system, one that will help immigrants and refugees succeed as citizens. We also need substantial parliamentary debate to ensure that reforms to our immigration policies gain the confidence of Canadians and serve the long-term national interest.

The Green Party’s proposed overhaul of Canada’s existing immigration policies addresses four specific areas: 1. the refugee protection system; 2. temporary foreign workers; 3. the recognition of foreign credentials and work experience; and 4. adequate funding of both front-line operations overseas and integration efforts within Canada.

1. The refugee protection system

The refugee protection system involves extremely small numbers relative to our overall numbers of immigration applicants.  Current levels of refugee claimants have now dropped well below 20,000 annually.  Nevertheless, refugee protection is a critical element of Canada’s interface with our global village.

Some of the federal government’s refugee protection changes are headed in the right direction.  These include tightening up certain administrative time frames and substituting appropriately-trained public servants to determine initially whether an applicant is a refugee, subject to a quasi-judicial appeal.

However, the government has proceeded with these and other measures based on a misguided and unsubstantiated view that there is an enormous problem with bogus refugees creeping across our borders or arriving by the boatload, attempting to circumvent the clogged regular immigration system and making unfounded refugee claims.

Certainly, with the regular immigration stream backlogged to an extraordinary degree in recent years, a small number of refugee claimants could be considered to be so-called “queue-jumpers.” Yet truly bogus or manifestly unfounded claims are made by only a tiny fraction of the refugees who arrive.  Surely we can do a better job of identifying these few claimants and ensuring that they do not stay in Canada, undocumented and under the radar. Then we can focus on the additional important changes needed to fix other aspects of our byzantine and cumbersome immigration system.

Instead the government has arbitrarily and controversially chosen to identify so-called “safe countries” from which refugee claims cannot be made.  It has also unduly limited legitimate appeals of rejected claims.  To make matters worse, new rules severely restrict the subsequent consideration of the humanitarian and compassionate reasons justifying Canada’s protection of individuals who have failed to satisfy the very strict international definition of a refugee.

There are important and valid reasons to retain the subsequent humane and compassionate determination.  Ultimately, the most efficient and fairest approach would be to combine the two matters into one, with the same decision-maker determining a claimant’s eligibility as a refugee and, if the claim was unsuccessful, also determining whether humane and compassionate reasons nevertheless justified the claimant’s staying in Canada. The government, however, has chosen to do the opposite without sufficient public debate.

At the same time as assuring greater efficiency and fairness in the refugee determination process within Canada, we must also vastly expand and improve our front-line overseas ability to process refugees.  Our anemic processing of refugees from Syria is truly shocking. With the number of Syrian refugees now exceeding four million and climbing, Canada has accepted a mere 435 government-sponsored refugees and 871 privately-sponsored ones. About 1200 Syrians have apparently made successful inland refugee claims having arrived in Canada on their own either before or after the conflict began.

This is pathetic compared to the kind of effort Canada has made in the past, such as when we accepted over 60,000 Vietnamese boat people.  It pales by comparison with Sweden’s acceptance of at least 14,000 Syrian refugees to date, and completely fails to take into account the hundreds of thousands of others currently displaced across Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.

2. Temporary foreign workers

When immigration is viewed through the lens of citizenship focusing on the successful integration of new Canadians, then the controversy over temporary foreign workers should surprise no one.

The Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) entrenches the bizarre concept that Canada is prepared to expedite the entry of persons whose sole purpose is to work here, often without basic rights or protection, and develop absolutely no attachment to our country. (The Caregiver Program is a notable exception to this contradiction.)  Only a few provinces haphazardly provide a path to citizenship for certain temporary workers through separate Provincial Nominee Programs.

Yet successful immigrants come with a wide range of skills that are equally valuable to both our society and economy. A recent study found that even newly arrived Canadian refugees collectively pay more in taxes than the millionaire immigrants Stephen Harper has fast-tracked for admission to Canada.  Ultimately, all immigrants deserve equal protection and an equal chance at successful integration as Canadian citizens.

Certainly, we need to streamline and accommodate the various provincial and territorial labour needs and employer demands, but this must be done within a coherent long-term national framework.  This is something that will require sustained federal and provincial collaboration and a simplified and efficient immigration entry system, one that is integrated with employment- and training-related programs and objectives.

The Green Party believes that Canada’s immigration policy is not well served by a Temporary Foreign Worker Program that has grown out-of-control, or by the complex, back-of-the-envelope changes that were hastily announced as policy-masquerading-as-law in 2014.

The evidence shows that the more the government imposes harsh and arbitrary deadlines for temporary workers to return home, the more people will choose to live undocumented in Canada after overstaying their visas.  Alternatively, they will simply seek other ways into Canada.  In this connection, in a curious twist, while the government appears to be clamping down on the Temporary Foreign Worker Program which falls under the aegis of Employment and Social Development Canada, it is quietly encouraging an even greater number of short-term low-skilled workers to enter Canada through another stream – the International Experience class, which falls under the aegis of Citizenship and Immigration Canada. No less than 58,000 persons were accepted in this way in 2012 to fill low-skilled service sector jobs. In addition, the lumping together of low-skilled and highly-skilled workers in the Temporary Foreign Worker program has created a real crisis for those sectors recruiting highly talented potential employees such as software and video game developers or as pilots in the aviation industry.

There could be no better example of the need for a comprehensive overhaul than this: one government department opening the door, as another department shuts it.

In the longer-term, the best way to address the current shortage of Canadian employees with certain skills would be to allow market forces to increase wages and to encourage more people in Canada to train for the occupations that are in high demand. It is now widely accepted that the government’s clumsy intervention a couple of years ago to suppress wages under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program ultimately produced the explosive growth in low-skilled temporary foreign workers.  This expansion then led to a public backlash that in turn resulted in the ill-thought-out changes of 2014 to constrain the program.

At the same time as eliminating the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, the federal government should urgently take the lead and bring together provincial governments, educational institutions and private sector players in order to coordinate the provision of extensive apprenticeship and training opportunities, as is done in Germany.  This would benefit all Canadians including new Canadians.

3. Recognition of foreign credentials and work experience

We must establish, once and for all, expeditious certification mechanisms to recognize foreign credentials and work experience.  It is unbelievable that we still have no viable procedures for their efficient verification and recognition.  Apparently most prospective immigrants are still being told just to contact the relevant provincial authorities to initiate the necessary action to assess their credentials or experience.  However, in a jurisdictional impasse, the provincial authorities then tell them that they must physically be in Canada to pursue the assessment – something that is, of course, impossible during the preliminary phase of the application process. It’s a “Catch -22,” and it hurts our economy.

Establishing a more effective process for recognizing foreign credentials, however, requires more than long-overdue adjustments to immigration procedures. It also requires reciprocal recognition of credentials and work experience within Canada. The federal government must finally lead a collective effort to complete our Canadian economic union and to remove the myriad barriers to the mobility of people and businesses across provincial borders.  This will not only facilitate the pre-clearing of foreign credentials and work experience, but most importantly, it will benefit all Canadians immeasurably and strengthen our economy.

4. Adequate funding of both front-line operations overseas and integration efforts within Canada

The across-the-board budget cuts in immigration make no sense from an economic management perspective.  At all times, we require an effective and efficient frontline immigration organization outside Canada. We need more, not fewer, immigration-processing centres, and more, not fewer, competent Canadian front-line staff.  Furthermore, this staff must have all the resources they need to complete security and identity checks, and to sort out issues of foreign credentials and work experience in an efficient manner.

Appropriate efficiencies can always be found in any system.  Within Canada, for instance, we could set up a single Canadian national office to coordinate the too frequently ineffective provincial government efforts to recruit international students to come to Canadian universities.

Federal-provincial agreements on settlement funding for new immigrants also need to be reviewed and recalibrated to ensure efficiency and to maximize the successful integration of new Canadians. Settlement funding has to be determined according to the particular needs of the immigrants; this will vary considerably across provinces and from time-to-time.  A cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all formula is not useful, as Ontario knows all too well.

This review and recalibration will have to address the Canada-Quebec Accord of 1991 that guarantees Quebec a minimum proportion of national funds regardless of how many immigrants actually come to that province.  Although there are reasons to justify some inter-provincial variations in settlement funding, it is simply not possible to rationalize the current disparity between the federal support for an immigrant arriving in Montreal, versus one arriving in Toronto or Vancouver.  The funding formula in the Canada-Quebec Accord is so rigid that even if no immigrants arrive in Quebec some years, the level of settlement funding will still increase. We really have to address this anomaly in order to establish equitable and effective settlement funding across the country.


Canada has become a magnet to people from around the world. People choose to immigrate to Canada because we have the best of universal values: justice, equality, diversity, the rule of law, fundamental freedoms, equal rights, and non-discrimination. Canada’s positive appeal has also been tied to our spectacular wilderness and environment. People choose Canada because of our success in living together peaceably, compassionately, and respectfully, while exercising the mutual responsibilities that go along with the rights of citizenship.

We have transformed in a relatively short period of time into the most cosmopolitan and diverse society in human history.  Due to the accident of our geography ─ vast spaces from sea to sea to sea ─ we have a huge potential to develop and diversify even further. It is time to ensure our immigration and refugee protection system is up to the challenge.