BY JINNY SIMS
Official Opposition Critic for Employment and Social Development
SEVERAL times over the past year, in response to the outrageous and regressive changes Stephen Harper’s Conservative government has made to the Canada I’ve always known and loved – the one I moved to for a teaching job 40 years ago and never left – I’ve used the same five words: This is not my Canada.
Don’t get me wrong – Canada is and will always be my beloved home. But this Conservative government’s vision for Canada is so fundamentally different from everything that motivated me to stay here; I find myself too often saddened to realize that were I to have landed here for the first time today, at 23-year-old (as I was back then), I might form quite an altered impression of the country that stole my heart almost instantly all those years ago.
There are so many policy areas I could choose from to illustrate my point: foreign aid; old age security; respect for our veterans; public services, etc. But because of an unfortunately far-from-unique incident I dealt with here in my office on Thursday, in which an applicant – for no obvious or founded reason – was refused a visitor visa to come to Canada to attend his mother’s funeral, I’m inspired to write about what’s happened to Canada’s immigration system under Stephen Harper.
First of all, this government has made no secret of the fact it does not value family reunification. Three years ago, the Conservatives put a moratorium on applications from parents and grandparents. This year, when it finally opened the application process again, it capped the number of applicants it would accept at 5,000. Wait times for parents and grandparents have mushroomed – by their own admission, Conservatives estimate that people will now have to wait almost 10 years if they want to sponsor a parent or grandparent into Canada.
Adding insult to injury, Conservatives have made it harder to even qualify as a sponsor. This government wants a commitment of 20 years of financial responsibility for anyone sponsored, and they require that the sponsor makes 30% more than the qualifying level of income just a year ago. Finally, a sponsor must be able to prove that income for three consecutive years, instead of the previous one-year requirement – all of this from a government fond of saying that families come first.
I’m always rather incredulous when Minister Jason Kenney boasts about his goal of attracting the young and the brightest to Canada, and then in the next breath drops a new bombshell about how much harder it is to sponsor relatives. The reality is that if the young and the brightest do not have any hope of bringing their parents with them, they simply won’t choose Canada.
Things are looking nearly as bleak for those looking to gain citizenship under this government. Conservatives say they want to eliminate the backlog and reduce the processing times for citizenship applications to less than one year by 2015-2016. And yet, the application backlog has doubled in seven years, increasing from 179,141 in 2006-2007 to 387,600 by the end of fiscal year 2013–2014, and processing times have doubled over the last four years.
THE Conservative government has made it more challenging than ever for families to reunite; has presided over the arbitrary rejection of visitor visa applications (resulting in missed weddings, missed funerals, and perhaps most sadly, missed goodbyes to dying loved ones); has allowed spousal sponsorship wait times balloon; and has lengthened wait times for those who have earned citizenship to obtain it.
At the same time, it has also created a new Express Entry program to facilitate the entry of economic immigrants into Canada, one of which many, including employers, are skeptical. Purportedly, the new program will be so smoothly administered that it will see eligible applicants fast-tracked within six months’ time. Skepticism, however, is understandable considering the fiasco this government made out of the former Skilled Workers stream.
For those unfamiliar with this government’s mismanagement of that program, Conservatives dealt with a 300,000 applicant backlog quite simply: by pressing the delete button. With that came the betrayal of all those applicants’ trust, and left millions of dollars in administrative costs unaccounted for.
My own personal concern about the Express Entry program is that it is far from transparent. Once again this government is placing an inordinate amount of power into the hands of one Minister – in this case, Chris Alexander. The Conservatives have done nothing to convince Canadians that the program is fair.
Instead, I and my NDP colleagues have raised thus far unanswered questions about “queue jumping”: How will Canadians know that those first are actually first to enter the country or first to be processed? How will applications be tracked? Will applicants end up in limbo if they submit an application, and do not receive an invitation?
So in saying, “this is not my Canada,” here is what I mean when it comes to immigration: My Canada has an immigration policy focussed on nation-building, which requires a balance of family reunification and economic immigrants. My Canada also has an immigration policy that is fair and transparent. Nation-building and accountability are clearly not the foundation on which this Conservative government has built its immigration policy. And when I think about that, it scares me. And I begin to not recognize my Canada.