Minister Kenney address to the Montreal Council on Foreign Relations

I am here at the end of a national tour on a theme that is so important to the future of our country—the fundamental reform of our immigration system.

Here in Quebec, because of the Canada-Quebec Accord on Immigration, the power to select economic immigrants and certain resettled refugees falls under the jurisdiction of the province, the Government of Quebec. I have a very good relationship with Quebec minister Kathleen Weil, who is taking very good steps to promote Quebec’s economic growth, which is required as a result of an ageing population.

Canada and Quebec need newcomers. We need their skills, their labour and their economic contribution. We need people from all over the world who want to contribute to our prosperity. We also have a moral and legal obligation to be a receiving country for those men and women, and their families, who need our protection as refugees.

I should point out that, in relation to some concerns that have been raised, I am proud to be the immigration minister of a country that takes in the highest number of resettled refugees per capita than any other country in the world. We take in 1 out of every 10 resettled refugees from around the world. We receive more resettled refugees as selected by the UN than any other country. And we are increasing the number of refugees that we will be accepting by 20 percent because protecting victims of persecution goes to the heart of the Canadian soul.

That’s part of our soul. It’s part of who we are. It’s part of our identity to be a land of protection for victims of persecution. Take the example of the United Empire Loyalists; the Black Loyalists; the escaped slaves from the Underground Railway who came north; the refugees all through the 20th century; the victims of the pogroms in Eastern Europe; the survivors of the Holocaust, whom we commemorate this week in Yom Hashoah; the victims of communist persecution in Prague in 1968 and Budapest in 1956; the Vietnamese and Indo-Chinese boat people of 1979. Since the end of the Second World War, Canada has welcomed nearly a million refugees from around the world and we are proud of that tradition of protection.

And that is why, as I said, we’re increasing the number of resettled refugees that we accept by 20 percent, while actually strengthening protections in our asylum system.

However, to retain public support and to maintain national consensus in Quebec and in Canada in favour of immigration and in favour of accepting refugees, we need to show Canadians that immigration works for our economy. The problem is that, for the past few years, we have been accepting a record number of newcomers to Canada. Since our government came to power in 2006, we have taken in an average of more than a quarter million permanent residents in Canada. That is the highest level in the history of Canada. We are adding the equivalent of 0.8 percent to our population every year because of immigration. That is the highest per capita level in the developed world.

However, there is a paradox at play here. We accept hundreds of thousands of new Quebeckers and new Canadians but too many of them land and find that there is a shortage of work in their field. Too many immigrants become unemployed. Too many immigrants are underemployed. Too many immigrants work in basic employment. Often, these are people who have left their country, as highly educated and cultured individuals, at the top of their society and their economy. Here, they find themselves at the bottom, on the lowest rung of the labour market in Canada.

And for me, that’s unacceptable. If we are to welcome newcomers from around the world, we must give them the opportunity to fully pursue their potential here in Canada, to work at their skill level and contribute fully to the Canadian economy. Because, you know, people don’t dream of coming to this country to live in some kind of experiment on diversity. They come here primarily to pursue economic opportunity for themselves and their families.

Two months ago, in Trois?Rivières, I met an Algerian national in Montreal—a young, intelligent and highly skilled engineer, who has been in Montreal for two years. He found a job in Montreal first, but he was unsuccessful. He then moved to the regions, but he was unsuccessful there too. He became very discouraged. I meet people like that every week.

Like two weeks ago in Vancouver, I met a lady who came up to me in tears. She had immigrated from Iran three years ago and was a radiologist whose husband was a pediatric surgeon and she said, “Mr. Kenney, for three years we’ve been trying to get our licence to practise. For three years we’ve been depleting our savings. We have no money left. We’ve run out of hope. As much as I hate the government in Iran today, I regret to tell you that I’m now going to have to go back to Iran to work as a radiologist so I can pay for the fees to put my son through UBC, so he can realize his dream of becoming the Canadian doctor that discovers the cure for cancer.” This woman reminded me of a Syrian national who was a doctor, whom I met in Edmonton, where she had been working as a cleaning lady in hotels for five years.

Frankly, my friends, as a Canadian, that is unacceptable. I think it’s almost immoral that we would invite people here, having them leave behind a life at the highest social and economic levels of their countries, only to have them face chronic unemployment and underemployment.

And it’s not only these anecdotes that show the weaknesses in our system. The statistics show a problem, too. We see that newcomers have an unemployment rate that is two times higher than the unemployment rate for the general population and four times higher than for native-born Canadians with university degrees. And, for the past three decades, we have seen a reduction in income for newcomers in Quebec and in Canada.

At the same time, we are experiencing a shortage of labour in our economy, particularly in certain industries and regions. This is the paradox. We bring newcomers into an economy experiencing a shortage of labour in various industries and regions, and they become unemployed. Because of what we see in the media, we often think that these labour shortages are an issue in the West, in Alberta. In reality, this is a national problem affecting the entire country.

Later today I will be meeting with some entrepreneurs here in Montreal who are involved in the video game production business — a huge, multi-hundred-million-dollar business for Canada. And they cannot find, as hard as they try, enough Canadians so that they can complete their work on time. They are desperate to get access through, for example, our Temporary Foreign Worker Program. So not only do we not have sufficient native-born Canadians to do that work, we aren’t bringing in immigrants that are qualified to do that work and they have to look abroad to supplement their workforce through our Temporary Worker Program. How does this make any sense?

Clearly, we need to change our approach to how we train young Canadians so that they can have the right skills and so they can have the competencies that we need to fill the jobs of the future. But we also need to change our federal immigration programs so that we can link newcomers with jobs that are available now and with jobs that will become available in the future. This is the goal of our fundamental immigration reforms.

Still, there is a problem. Over the course of a number of years, and for reasons that are complex, our federal immigration system has become rigid and cumbersome, with a lengthy application process and backlogs of hundreds of thousands of cases. There are now one million people who are awaiting a decision on their application to immigrate to Canada. It takes eight years to arrive at a decision under many of our programs. This doesn’t work, given that we are increasingly seeing a highly competitive international labour market.

I was in Mumbai, India, two years ago. I met one of the top graduates of the Indian Institute of Technology in Hyderabad. This is the top university in South Asia. And he was one of the top students. I said to him, “I really hope you think about coming to Canada.” And he said, “Well, Minister, what would that take? What would it require?” And I kind of started staring at the floor and shuffling around and mumbling because I said, “Well, you should probably apply for the Skilled Worker Program and we’ll get back in touch with you in eight years.” He said, “But, Minister, I have friends that graduated with me and they’re already in Australia or New Zealand five months later.”

We are increasingly losing the race to recruit the most talented young people from around the world. We need these young people. We need their skills to help our economy grow in the future and to create jobs here. But, because our federal immigration system is so rigid, we are losing more and more of these individuals. We need to clearly and decisively address the problem of the backlog of cases in our immigration system.

We have to deal decisively with these problems of huge backlogs and endless wait times, which is why in our budget last month we announced that we will be returning some three-quarters of the applications that have been waiting in our main federal immigration system. It’s a difficult decision. I regret it for those who have been waiting patiently in line. I regret that mistakes that were made in the past have made this necessary. But if we don’t take decisive action now, we will never have a fast immigration system that can actually respond to labour markets and bring in people to meet jobs that are available. We must act decisively. And, as a result of this, within about 18 months, we will have a real?time immigration system at the federal level that brings people who are qualified into Canada within months of their application rather than years. And that will massively improve our ability to connect immigrants with the jobs that are available.

We have studied changes that have been made in various other countries, such as Australia and New Zealand, where they have created a system to pre?assess the education and skills of people who want to work in regulated fields and regulated professions.

As I am sure you are very much aware, one of the most difficult problems for immigrants is getting their diplomas and skills recognized. At a domestic level in Canada, we are working with Quebec and other provinces in the context of the Pan-Canadian Framework for the Recognition of Foreign Qualifications. We have invested $50 million in this program through the Economic Action Plan to bring all professional associations—doctors, lawyers, etc.—onboard in pan-Canadian discussions to arrive at an accelerated and simplified system for assessing and recognizing foreign qualifications.

So that’s important work we’re doing and we will then take that at the federal level to invite people applying for immigration to Canada to go the national bodies representing the licensing groups and apply for a pre-assessment. We want to know whether they have at least an even chance of getting their licence to practise in Canada before bringing them here.

There are two problems with foreign credentials. One is, truthfully, some of the licensing bodies have engaged in a certain amount of gate-keeping and protectionism. But another problem, to be honest, is one we’ve created because we’ve invited to the country people who are on paper engineers and doctors but who aren’t really at the Canadian standard. We owe them truth in advertising.

We have a responsibility to be clear because if we attract an engineer who is in fact a technician according to Canadian standards, why are we bringing this person to Canada when we won’t be able to benefit from their skills? Why bring to Canada doctors from abroad who will become taxi drivers or convenience store workers?

That doesn’t do them any favours. It’s a huge waste of their potential. It creates enormous human costs and social costs and it represents a huge cost in terms of lost opportunity for the Canadian economy. And that’s why we’ll be doing a pre-assessment of credentials and education.

As you are aware, in the federal system, we give the same points to an applicant with a degree from Harvard that we give to applicants with a degree from the lowest-ranked university in the United States.

We don’t do any qualitative assessment of education, just a kind of look at the quality of education. In the future we’ll be assessing whether people’s education is actually relevant to the Canadian labour market.

And we intend to create a system of highly?skilled applicants, which we will share with employers so that we can connect employers who are looking for skilled people with the immigration applicants. This is the same system that New Zealand and Australia have adopted.

So in this new system, employers will be able go in and do a query of those who are pre-qualified, and invite them into Canada with arranged jobs. In our studies, we have seen that immigrants who arrive in Canada with prearranged employment earn an average of close to $80,000 in their third year in Canada. This is twice as much as immigrants who arrive without prearranged employment. Therefore, we need to follow what the data says.

And the data tells us that people who have prearranged jobs do about twice as well as those that don’t.

So those are some of the reforms we are implementing to better align our immigration system with our economic needs. And, I should say, we have already carried out some significant reforms—for example, we have created the Canadian Experience Class and we want to help foreign students remain in Canada and become Canadians.

We have created a new program that allows foreign students to remain in Canada as permanent residents following their studies. We now issue two?year post?graduation work permits to help students as they start their experience in Canada. Also, we allow temporary foreign workers who qualify and who have worked in Canada for a year to remain in Canada.

These individuals, the highly-skilled students and temporary workers, have already been integrated. They have perfected their language skills. They have experience in our labour market and they have degrees that will be recognized by Canadian employers. This means that their success is almost certain. We need to retain them and, because of the changes we are implementing, we will be able to do so.

I should also mention the reforms we want to make to our immigrant entrepreneur and investor programs because I know that this affects a number of you here today.

I believe that Canada has been underselling itself when it comes to immigrant investors. We have a lower price point, but we give immediate permanent residency to those who just loan our governments $800,000 for five years, which is guaranteed and which they get back. That does not, in my mind, represent the creation of wealth or jobs. It is not a durable or ongoing commitment to the Canadian economy and they don’t even take a risk. Moreover, there is a huge surplus of applicants for these programs. There are literally millions of millionaires with a huge net worth who are interested in coming to Canada.

So in my view, we should modify these programs to extract greater economic benefit for Canada, to find some way to ensure a meaningful, ongoing, wealth-creating, job-creating investment from investor immigrants. We are underpricing ourselves. And, you know, we should realize that we are the gold standard in international migration. Permanent residency in Canada is as good as it gets.

I was at an event in Toronto announcing some of our new entrepreneurial programs the other day with Kevin O’Leary from The Dragon’s Den TV show. And he said, when he goes around the world talking to investors, Canada has become the global rock star for investment. According to Forbes Magazine, this is now the best country in the world in which to start a new business. According to the World Bank, Canada is the third best place in the world in which to invest.

There is, as I say, no shortage of people who want to bring their capital here. And, if we’re going to give them the privilege of permanent residency in Canada, we should require a meaningful and ongoing contribution to the Canadian economy.

This is the reason why we have announced consultations on reforms to the immigrant investor program. Quebec has a similar program and we want to work closely with Quebec in this respect. We also want to coordinate potential changes with Quebec as much as possible.

Lastly, we are reforming our entrepreneur immigrant program. Currently, we are attracting people who have to provide a loan of $300,000 and who are required to create employment within two years. They come, they purchase a small convenience store, and they sell it in two years. That is not creating employment. That is not the true spirit that we are looking for among foreign entrepreneurs. So we are going to reform these programs.

For example, creating a new start-up visa program will allow innovators, such as young people from overseas who are very talented, who have a business plan and who are supported by investors in Canada, to come here and create their businesses in Canada. So we’re thinking of this kind of a start-up visa idea. The same idea is now before the U.S. Congress. We want to beat the U.S. to the punch in attracting these people.

Let me say that – I’ll wrap up in a moment to take your questions –we also understand the central importance of language proficiency in our approach to immigration and integration.

As you are aware, the data indicates that language proficiency is the most important factor in ensuring that immigrants are successful. I am very much aware that this is a loaded issue here in Quebec. At the federal level, we are going to increase the language proficiency obligations for immigrant professionals. We are going to create a new skilled trades program, which will include a set minimum standard for these individuals.

Under the citizenship programs, language proficiency is a legal obligation. In order to become a Canadian citizen, immigrants need to show that they are proficient in English or French. However, I have met too many Canadian citizens who have been living here for many years who cannot express themselves in English or French. This is not acceptable because it limits their social mobility and impacts their lives in Canada.

So I’m announcing today that we will be requiring applicants for citizenship to obtain evidence of having reached our minimum level of language proficiency through a designated third party organization to ensure that all of those who join us as full members of our Canadian family in the future are able fully to participate in our society.

I would like to thank you for your patience. You can see that I have addressed only some of the changes that we are currently pursuing. I could also discuss our efforts to strengthen the integrity of the system but, at the end of the day, what is important is that we want to continue with our tradition of being a country that is open to the world.

We want to continue our humanitarian traditions towards refugees in need of our protection. But we also want to attract people from all over the world to help us build a prosperous and generous society, where they can maximize their potential. We have a moral obligation to do so for newcomers. We have an obligation to do so for Canadians. And we have a reform plan to do so for the future of Canada.

Thank you very much.

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