Ottawa is pushing for immigration reforms to cope with a growing economy and the lowest unemployment level in years [AP]

Canada is hardly the first to be confronted with questions surrounding the "quantity" and "quality" of immigrants it admits every year.

But with 900,000 applicants on the waiting list, and a wage differential between recent immigrants and the native-born, these questions have now taken on a new sense of urgency.

Rather than continue with a points systems devised 40 years ago to offer all applicants a first-come, first-serve system, the Ottawa government is trying to push immigration reforms via a budget bill being debated in parliament this week.

The points system, while revolutionary in its time, has been faulted for failing to meet the needs of newly-arrived immigrants and the demands of a surprisingly resilient economy that is – in contrast to the US – on a trajectory all its own.

Canada today is experiencing one of its lowest unemployment rates ever.

The changes introduced by the government allow the minister to cherry-pick immigrants on the waiting list based on Canada's current job demands. Rather than give precedence to people who are at the head of the queue, the proposed changes will seek out those who have the skills and credentials that are being sought by employers in Canada.

Recognising foreign credentials

Stephen Harper, the PM, wants to fast-track
the most qualified immigrants [REUTERS]
This is an improvement over the former system which failed to recognise the bulk of immigrants' foreign credentials leaving many educated doctors, for example, with no choice but to drive cabs to mete out a living. Besides, it kept them waiting for up to six years in queue.

A century ago, another immigration minister was faced with the same dilemma of having to balance quality and quantity. Writing about a time when vast swathes of Canada's west were still unsettled, Sir Clifford Sifton, the minister for the interior in the Laurier government, said that he had always privileged quality over quantity.

In an essay titled The Battle of the Pioneer (quoted from The Land Newly Found, published in 2006), Sifton said: "I think a stalwart peasant in a sheep-skin coat, born on the soil, whose forefathers have been farmers for 10 generations, with a stout wife and a half-dozen children, is good quality."

"A Trades Union artisan who will not work more than eight hours a day and will not work that long if he can help it, will not work on a farm at all and has to be fed by the public when his work is slack is, in my judgment, quantity and very bad quality."

It was also a period marked by overt discrimination; Sifton's picky department paid higher bonuses to agents recruiting immigrants from the north of England and Scotland as compared to those from the south of the British Isles.

Meeting demographic objectives

Canada's immigration policy has undergone dramatic changes since then, but what has not changed is the need for a mechanism to meet the country's demographic and economic objectives.

That national interest is best served, the government says, if the system remains fair and reflective of Canada's deeply-held humanitarian impulses while fast-tracking those who have the best chances of succeeding in the Canadian economy.

The government of Stephen Harper, the prime minister, holds that Canadians will come to accept that some applicants are better off not coming to Canada or at least delaying their arrival until a more favourable moment.

Industry and business groups appear to be largely in favour of the government's proposed changes, while immigrant advocacy organisations and the vocal lobby of immigration consultants are worried about the virtually unprecedented level of discretion that the amendments would give to the Immigration Minister.

Typical of industry response has been the Independent Contractors and Business Association of British Columbia which sees the backlog of applicants as coming in the way of getting immigrants that Canada needs immediately.

"We don't have a need five years from now, we have a need right now … We need strong, young, willing workers to come, much like the people who built this country," Philip Hochstein, the association's president, said in a statement.

Fast-tracking applicants

We want to welcome more newcomers to Canada and we want to do it faster"
The most trenchant criticism has been the charge that ministerial authority could be used to undermine the colour, ethnicity and race-blind immigration system that was put in place when the points system was introduced in 1967.

"There is no basis for discrimination based on race, religion, ethnicity, that sort of thing," a senior official of Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) was quoted as saying on the weekend in defence of the new policy.

"It would continue to be a universal, non-discriminatory approach."

Meanwhile, Diane Finley, immigration minister, has been criss-crossing the country emphasising that her intent is simply to fast-track applicants who have skills that are in demand in Canada.

Government web sites list a set of "occupations under pressure" in various provinces, but experience has shown demand alone does not translate into jobs new immigrants can fill. 

In addition to the hurdles they will likely face in having their credentials from abroad recognised, they face competition from the native-born who are also drawn to booming parts such as the oil sands of Alberta.

It is difficult to see how the objective of paring the waiting list and balancing all the various categories of immigrants – including a new "Canadian experience class" for foreign students and work permit holders – can be achieved without raising the number of immigrants accepted annually into the country.

Canada's challenge may then lie in trying to achieve the twin objectives of quality and quantity- simultaneously.

The 429,000 newcomers (including work permit holders and foreign students) admitted to Canada last year is perhaps indicative of higher numbers in the years to come.

As Finley said in Vancouver immediately after the changes were introduced, "We want to welcome more newcomers to Canada and we want to do it faster."

George Abraham is contributing editor of Diplomat and International Canada, published from Ottawa.

Source: Al Jazeera