Lee Berthiaume, Ottawa Citizen | March 8, 2016 | Last Updated: Mar 9 8:49 AM ET
OTTAWA — The Liberal government has cut the number of skilled foreign workers it will allow into Canada this year to make room for a huge influx of Syrian refugees, immigrant spouses and children.
Immigration Minister John McCallum says the reduction in economic immigrants is a “temporary pause” that will have minimal impact on Canada’s well-being and prosperity. But the move has nonetheless raised concerns from business groups about the Liberals’ long-term plans for immigration.
At the same time, the government could face a backlash from some ethnic communities for not letting more immigrant parents and grandparents into Canada to be reunited with their families.
McCallum announced the changes at an event in Brampton, Ont., on Tuesday, only a short distance from where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau unveiled his party’s immigration policy during last year’s federal election campaign.
McCallum touted the fact that Canada will be aiming for the first time in history to accept more than 300,000 immigrants in a single year. That represents an increase of 20,000 from 2015.
“It is the highest number of projected immigrant admissions put forth by the government of Canada in modern times,” he said, adding that the government’s plan “is grounded in the shared conviction and in our history of compassion.
“It outlines a significant shift in immigration policy towards reuniting more families, building our economy, and upholding Canada’s humanitarian tradition to resettle refugees and offer protection to those in need.”
But while Canada will accept more immigrants than ever before, the increases are not across the board. The government will admit about 20,000 more immigrant family members and 25,000 more refugees than in 2015. But between 20,000 and 25,000 fewer skilled foreign workers will be allowed into the country.
(Economic immigrants are foreign workers, including business people and skilled tradespeople, who are allowed into Canada on a permanent basis. Those admitted through the controversial temporary foreign worker program fall into a different category.)
Speaking to the Ottawa Citizen, McCallum described the reduction as a “temporary pause or small reduction” in economic immigration, not a long-term shift. He said the plan is for future increases in the number of skilled foreign workers allowed into Canada.
However, McCallum would not say whether that means the number of refugees admitted into Canada will return to previous levels starting next year. “We’ll have to see,” he said. “We are going to enter into substantial consultations. … I don’t want to prejudge what the outcome will be.”
McCallum said the government will be looking at ways to reform the immigration system, particularly the contentious Express Entry program through which most economic immigrants are allowed into the country.
That will be welcome news to the private sector, as will McCallum’s assertion that the reduction in skilled foreign workers is only temporary. Nonetheless, some business groups expressed disappointment with the reduction.
“It’s good to see the overall increase (in immigration levels), but all of the decrease has come at the expense of the economic category and that’s concerning,” said Sarah Anson-Cartwright, director of skills and immigration policy at Canadian Chamber of Commerce.
“These are people who can really contribute to driving our economy and fill in with some of the more demanding type of work.”
Dan Kelly, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said he was recently in Alberta where many small businesses such as restaurants and hotels are “crying out” for workers despite the province’s dismal economic performance.
“So it is disappointing that they are down,” he said of economic immigration. “I don’t think anyone is going to freak out if this is for one year, but if this is a long-term trend then it will be a concern.”
There was also surprise that while the number of immigrant family members allowed into Canada will increase to 82,000 from 68,000, the growth is limited to spouses, partners and children. The same number of parents and grandparents — about 20,000 — will be admitted as in 2015.
‘If this is a long-term trend then it will be a concern’
Many had expected more parents and grandparents to be admitted given that many are forced to wait up to a decade to be reunited with their families, and the Liberals doubled the number of applications received from such family members to 10,000. The Liberals had promised such an increase during the election.
McCallum said the processing times for parents and grandparents will come down naturally as the immigration department works through the backlog of applications. But throwing more applications into the mix without an equivalent increase in processing power could prompt a backlash from some communities.
Balpreet Singh of the World Sikh Organization of Canada said family reunification is a hot-button issue for the country’s Sikh community, with parents and grandparents especially important.
“They are often responsible for teaching the children about faith and culture,” he said. “They also allow for parents to go to work as a form of childcare. So this is definitely something we hear a lot about.”
While he welcomed the overall increase in family members, Singh questioned why parents and grandparents were omitted.
“At its face, increasing the number of applications, but not increasing the number of admissions would seemingly lead to an increase in the backlog,” he said. “So we’re hoping this is an interim step and in the future we will see the number of admissions of parents and grandparents increase as well.”