Conservatives Not Planning Major Changes in Immigration

Over the course of the last weekend, I attended the Canadian Bar Association’s annual national conference for immigration lawyers held this year in Quebec City. With many of the federal government’s top immigration officials in attendance, including the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, the Honourable Monte Solberg, it was a good opportunity to gauge where this particular government is headed in the area of immigration policy after its first 100 days in office.

As you may have heard already, the new Conservative government’s first budget tabled last week contains a drop in the Right of Permanent Residence Fee (RPRF) from $975 to $490. In the budget, the Conservatives have also committed to acting in the area of international credentials to ensure skilled immigrants have an easier and more successful transition into the Canadian labour market. But beyond that, it does not appear this government is contemplating any major changes to our immigration policy or immigrant selection system.

There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, as a minority government, any controversial policy changes would no doubt attract the attention of the Conservatives’ foes and their representatives in Parliament. Opposition parties including the Liberals and NDP would relish the opportunity to paint this government as anti-immigrant as part of their efforts to set the stage for another election in a year or so.

More fundamentally, I think this government, from the Prime Minister’s Office on down, understands that immigration is an issue that many voters in this country will use as a litmus test of sorts for the “new” Conservative party. Many urban voters and new Canadians are suspending judgment as to whether this government can properly represent them, especially in policy areas where values are a component such as immigration. And the Conservatives are keen to represent themselves as a moderate, centrist party that can attract votes in the major urban centres of Canada where most new immigrants reside.

The recent announcement that a full judicial inquiry will be conducted into the Air India bombing that occurred over two decades ago is a product of the Conservatives desire to attract support from ethnic voters in Canada, in this case Indo-Canadians.

With this in mind, I believe the Conservatives have decided to more or less maintain the status quo with respect to immigration for the foreseeable future. This means no drastic changes in the level of immigrants we approve each year (currently at around 250,000) and no fundamental changes in how we select immigrants.

This is not necessarily a good thing. As I have discussed in previous columns, there are elements of our immigrant selection system that are definitely in need of reform and revision. The wait times for federally selected skilled workers, for example, are far too long and mechanisms need to be developed to control the intake of these applications before this can be changed. Moreover, there are serious questions as to whether we are selecting the right kind of skilled workers and whether changes are needed to ensure Canadian employers are getting the kind of skills and experience they need in an environment of increasing skill shortages in a number of sectors.

Having said all this, it is now apparent that the sources of skilled immigrants that will be arriving in coming years will be changing somewhat from those that arrived in the last 10 years. But this has nothing to do with the change in government that occurred in the last election. Rather, the immigration law that was put into place in 2002, the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, is having a profound impact on the number of applicants from countries like China, for example.

As reported by federal officials in Quebec City this past weekend, the annual number of total immigration applications to the visa offices in Beijing and Hong Kong has, in last three years, dropped to approximately one-third of what it was in 2001. This is a consequence of the increased emphasis on English and French language ability in the skilled worker selection grid that has been in place since 2002. As a result, in the next few years, China may drop from our number one source country for immigrants to number two, with India taking over the top position.

In the short term at least, it appears this government is content to address the consequences of the changes made to our immigration law and policy by the last government and perhaps make some minor changes to the system that was put in place in 2002. I expect this government will try to focus attention on its efforts to remove immigrants who enter the country illegally or commit crimes after arriving but will otherwise not pursue a policy much different from that of its predecessor. In the area of immigration at least, a Conservative government in Ottawa appears to be a recipe for more of the same.