The Ideas, Economics and Institutions of Canadian Immigration

Since their election in 2006, the Conservatives have sold themselves as a big immigrant party. They have instituted broad changes for Canadian immigration.  Today we examine how we can approach these changes using a historical perspective.  We look at a case study of Conservative changes to the Federal Skilled Worker (FSW) program and connect it to historical trends in Canadian immigration policy.

By and large, Canadian immigration policy has focused on economic interests, though it has been affected by political and social attitudes towards immigrants as well. It allowed in Chinese labourers in the 19th century to work on the railroad, or eastern Europeans to act as Prairie farmers in the 20th, or more recently, searched for middle-class and educated immigrants in the late 20th century. Ideas about immigrants, often expressed through racial or ideological hostility, has also affected Canadian immigration policy.  Such as the exclusion of Asian or black immigrants, the expulsion of political radicals in the 1920s and 1930s, the refusal to admit Jewish refugees before and during the Second World War, the internment of Japanese and German Canadians, or the screening of alleged Communist sympathizers in the 1940s and 1950s.  On the other hand, Canada was increasingly generous towards refugees in the post-Second World War era as it abandoned much of its explicit racial or ethnic criteria in favour of a multicultural policy.  The last three decades saw a return to more economic focused policy, but still one entrenched in securing immigrants who shared “Canadian values,” or at least seemed likely to adopt them.  Both economic interests and ideas about immigrants has influenced our immigration policy.

Before the 1960s, policy was primarily directed by executive decision through regulations, policy directives and administrative discretion.  Often the Prime Minister or his Cabinet would decide immigration policy without consulting the House of Commons. Only in the 1960s was legislation enacted to manage Canadian immigration policy in a more formalized way. Provincial-federal relations has also shaped policy, such as when Ottawa responded to negative pressure from British Columbia to restrict Asian immigration early in the 20th century, or to Quebec's desire to stop non-francophone immigration.

We can witness these forces at work in current changes of immigration policy as well.  Recent changes to the Federal Skilled Worker program reveal that a balance between institutions, ideas and economic interests still exists today.  The Conservative ideology today sees immigrants primarily through an economic lens and their changes to the FSW program reflects those concerns.

The Liberal immigration programs of the 1990s had been fairly open as a result of their ideological belief in multiculturalism. In 2002, they passed the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. The Act sought “to pursue the maximum social, cultural and economic benefits of immigration [and] to enrich and strengthen the social and cultural fabric of Canada.”  It also addressed the backlog of applicants to the Federal Skilled Worker Program, which, as its name suggests, was focused on bringing in economic immigrants who fulfilled specific economic roles unfilled by current Canadian citizens. The list of applicants had grown far longer than the government could handle due to unclear requirements for applicants. The Liberal legislation did not fix the problem and after their election in 2006, it was left to the Conservatives to attempt their own solution.

In the spring of 2008, Parliament passed Bill C-50 that amended parts of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.  The amendment was meant to help the Minister speed up processing times for applicants to Permanent Residency in Canada.  A new policy was found in Part 6 of the bill included an amendment to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act that stated "the Minister may give instructions with respect to the processing of applications and requests."

The new legislation allowed the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Jason Kenney to issue his first Ministerial Instruction on November 29, 2008.  Labelled, MI1, it set out a new set of criteria on which Federal Skilled Worker applications would be judged, post-dated retroactively to all applications received on or after February 27, 2008.  The new criteria limited the FSW program to those with experience in 38 in-demand occupations, those with an arranged employment offer, or students and temporary foreign worker.  The new restrictions was a clear move away from the open policy of the Liberals.

A December 2011 Review of Ministerial Instructions revealed that these instructions were far less successful than the Ministry claimed at the time.  By the second quarter of 2010, applications under the MI1 rules had risen to levels higher than they had ever been under C-50, up to 25,000 applications. From February 2008 until June 2010, the Citizen and Immigration Department received 164,210 applications, excluding incomplete applications. On June 26, 2010, Kenney released his set of Ministerial Instructions 2 that again issued an eligibility list of 29 occupations now with a 1,000 application cap for the FSW program.  In total, there would also be a 20 000 cap for the FSW program to again try and solve the problem.  These MI2 instructions were given priority over MI1 applications, so anyone who could fulfill one of the twenty-nine occupations was given priority over the previous list of 38.  By that point, the 2011 review highlights, "132,900 applications had been submitted under MI1, leaving a total backlog that stood at 176,222 cases (493,742 persons) by late spring 2011."  Though, it continues, "When this is combined with the pre-MI1 backlog, it represents a reduction of 23% from the total on February 27, 2008. However, if MI1 had never been introduced, CIC estimated that the FSW backlog would have been at least 850,000 persons by 2012."  So the government did avoid the disaster predicted in 2008, but as a result created a new mess. The conclusion to the review found that the "ministerial directive stipulated that MI2 applications be processed before those submitted under MI1, and MI1 files be processed before addressing the pre-existing backlog [means] that the time required for a final decision for the group in the pre-C50 backlog — almost 300,000 persons — will likely increase by several years."

On March 30 2012 Jason Kenney revealed that under new legislation, Citizenship and Immigration Canada would close the files of FSW applicants who applied before February 27, 2008, and for those whom an immigration officer had not made a decision based on selection criteria by March 29, 2012.  “The Federal Skilled Worker Program backlog is a major roadblock to Canada’s ability to respond to rapidly changing labour market needs," said Kenney, "having to process applications that are as many as eight years out of date reduces our ability to focus on new applicants with skills and talents that our economy needs today."  The entire remaining group of applications from the pre-C-50 backlog, those who had applied before February 27, 2008, were summarily rejected.  Applicants whose files are now closed by the new rules are invited to re-apply according to the Citizen and Immigration Canada website. Unfortunately, for many of those applicants, there was then a pause on accepting application according to Ministerial Instruction 5, released July 1, 2012. Ministerial Instruction 8 has lifted the pause on applications, but capped it at 5,000 new applicants.  The FSW program also instituted new regulations concerning language requirements and educational credentials as its criteria for "acceptable immigrants" is tightened.

Today, the FSW has had its backlog of applicants from before February 2008 wiped out, and in its place a list of applicants who meet the Conservative's economic requirements for the FSW program - namely they fill one of the jobs on their approved list.  Hundreds of thousands of potential immigrants have had their dream of becoming Permanent Residents taken away because they were not suited to Canadian economic needs.  While this may seem unfair to some, it is reflective of the balance between institutions, ideas, and economic interest which has historically defined Canadian immigration.  The FSW program is geared towards the Conservative position that emphasizes economic benefits of immigration over more open-ended cultural ideas about multiculturalism.  The transformation has had a dramatic effect on many lives, but is (unfortunately) a historical exception for Canada.