Nation-building not on Kenney’s immigration agenda

Immigration minister Jason Kenney’s massive overhaul of the immigration system — he thinks he can get it done in 18 months — has massive implications for cities like Vancouver, but don’t look for any consultation. Minister Kenney is simply going to get it done.

The problems he’s identified are real. The backlog must be reduced. Refugee claims are increasing from areas we don’t usually associate with civil strife or human rights abuses. There’s a mismatch between labour market needs and those arriving in the current system.

But the Conservatives aren’t reforming the system so much as eliminating it. By putting employers in the driver’s seat and the minister in charge of refugee determinations, the backlog and labour market issues are eliminated at stroke. As for the people hoping to arrive under each program, well, tough.

As I argue in this column in the current Business in Vancouver, this may be “transformational change,” but it’s not nation-building:

Jason Kenney’s crusade to bring “transformational change” to Canada’s immigration system is beginning to look more like the virtual elimination of the system as we know it.
The changes under consideration are so profound that leaders of immigrant-serving organizations are overwhelmed.
The current system is far from perfect, but hundreds of thousands of new Canadians have used it successfully to start new lives while they help build our country.
The current focus is citizenship. Kenney’s exclusive focus is the labour market. His proposals are neither an immigration policy, nor an economic development strategy.
Any fundamental change requires careful consideration, but consultation seems to be the last thing on the minister’s mind.
Kenney started slowly enough with a December edict prohibiting citizenship for Muslim women who refuse to lift their veils for immigration bureaucrats when they take the oath. No example of such a refusal has been identified.
Now the energizer bunny of the Harper cabinet is on a roll.
Kenney’s keynote speech March 7 to the Economic Club of Canada proposed changes so sweeping that long-time observers aren’t sure what will be left when Kenney is done.
Promoted as business-friendly and good for the economy, the Kenney proposals cover everything from refugee claims to family reunification and economic immigrants.
His most startling suggestion: to eliminate the waiting list, now unacceptably long, by abolishing it at a stroke.
From now on, employers would pick immigrants from a single global pool, give priority to those with fluency in English or French, and bring them to the head of the line.
Potential immigrants who have been languishing on the waiting list for years could simply be out of luck unless they can find a boss to bring them in. (On the other hand, those wanting to speed the arrival of relatives to Canada could just hire them, whether they meet broader economic needs or not.)
“The minister’s statements certainly herald dramatic changes,” says Eyob Naizghi, executive director of Mosaic, one of BC’s largest and oldest immigrant-serving non-profits. “But not only is it not clear what is proposed, it’s not clear how it may be implemented.”
If employers pick immigrants, rather than the government, the immigration system will become a labour pool and nothing else.
Rather than invest in education, skills and training for Canadian workers to support a made-in-Canada economic strategy, Kenney would let individual employers skim the cream of skilled workers from other nations and simply ship them home when they were no longer needed.
“Frankly,” says Kenney, “the employer knows better than a big bureaucracy whose skills are needed and will be relevant to the Canadian labour market the minute they arrive.”
But those workers will be accessible only to employers with the size and resources to do their own recruiting. Smaller businesses will be shut out, unless they want to take a chance on the private recruiters who would undoubtedly flourish under such a scheme.
The Kenney proposals would also effectively wipe out the current Provincial Nominee Program, leaving the provinces and employers to forage for workers in this single global pool of workers.
What happens when an employer lays off or terminates a worker? Presumably those employees are deported unless, as Kenney suggested in one speech, their skills qualify them for permanent residence.
It’s hard to imagine more fertile ground for corruption and kickbacks. Even Fraser Institute economist Herb Grubel, a harsh critic of the current system, warns that tough regulations will be needed to ensure unscrupulous employers don’t cheat.
Canada’s current immigration system is based on the belief that providing opportunity for immigrants will expand prosperity for all Canadians. Kenney’s proposals head in the opposite direction, making individual employers’ short-term needs the top priority.
That’s no way to build a country.