Immigration minister welcoming immigrants with a smile

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Minister John McCallum.
He’s not an immigrant himself, but the new minister of the renamed Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) is no stranger to the portfolio. Prior to the last election, Minister John McCallum, a veteran parliamentarian and experienced cabinet member, served as the Opposition critic for immigration. And since his appointment to the department’s top job, he has shown his understanding of the complex issues that Canada faces, starting, of course, with the decision to resettle thousands of Syrian refugees.

But while the welcoming of refugees has been the most pressing item on his agenda so far, Minister McCallum is reviewing current policy and making plans for the year ahead. In an interview with Canadian Immigrant magazine, he talked briefly about some of those plans, and, while he didn’t reveal too many specifics, he did point to a few immigration areas that will see improvement soon, including quicker reunification of spouses and improved handling of international students who want to become permanent residents and then citizens.

When you served as the Opposition critic on immigration, what was your biggest concern with the Conservatives’ approach to the portfolio?

There were many! I think our overall theme was we wanted to welcome immigrants with a smile, not a scowl. I was concerned about the treatment of newcomers and the welcoming of refugees, but we’re beyond that now — we’re not focusing on the Conservatives.

Your government has already shown that welcoming approach and a return to Canada’s humanitarian roots with the welcoming of Syrian refugees. Recently, the Supreme Court of Canada also expanded humanitarian & compassionate grounds. Is compassion going to define your approach?

Yes, welcoming newcomers with a smile implies compassion. In the case of the refugee initiative, I’m convinced — and a big majority of Canadians are convinced — that it is the right thing to do. Canadians have done very well in welcoming the refugees so far, including provincial governments and cities, settlement organizations and businesses; they have all stepped up to the plate. It’s become a truly national project.

There is, of course, concern over how refugees will integrate into the labour market? Will they be filling mostly entry-level type jobs?

We’ve had waves of refugees come to Canada, from Hungary, Uganda, Vietnam. In the short run, it’s a humanitarian gesture; Canada is paying a cost to welcome a large number of people. In the medium term, they become regular hard-working Canadians; they pay Canada back with filling jobs and paying taxes. After they get more established, they have children who are the next generation of Canadians, and it all goes on. That was the case for previous waves of refugees and I see no reason why it won’t be the same.

Refugees come in all shapes, sizes and experience. Some are highly skilled and some less so, and Canada needs all types. Even those who don’t have much education or don’t speak English or French will still do well. They will learn the language and take jobs that are appropriate to their skills.

Would refugees be a good fit for provinces such as New Brunswick to offset their aging demographics? The former premier of that province Frank McKenna recently suggested that newcomers be required to reside there for a few years to help build up communities.

I think we should try to help provinces in that regard, and I’ve been trying to spread out refugees as well, but whether you can require newcomers to stay — that is definitely a question. Constitutionally, you can’t restrict the mobility of Canadians. There are some ways to encourage people to stay, but we have to be mindful of the Constitution.

Immigrants tend to go where other immigrants are. Frank is right — cities like Toronto have a built-in advantage, so we need to create incentives for immigrants to get to other cities. The provincial nominee programs were started to encourage immigration to other cities. Manitoba, for example, has had success with it, as newcomers would typically put down roots and stay.

It’s certainly the case that the two provinces keenest to receive have been New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, which have much older populations. They have talked about needing workers for fish plants, for example, and are strongly reaching out to refugees.

In terms of the family sponsorship stream, you promised a rise from 5,000 to 10,000 applications this year and you’ve delivered. The quota was reached within days, but there was some criticism over how they get chosen on a first-come, first-served basis. There were reports of some immigration consultants couriering bags of applications to the processing centre to be at the front of the line.

The main story is we doubled the number. That exercise is over for 2016; 2017 will be another year and we have a whole year to [review].

How do you think Express Entry has worked since its inception last year?

Well, that’s an area I haven’t looked at in detail yet as we’ve been focused on the refugee situation, but it’s an important part of the system. When we were in Opposition, we didn’t criticize or praise the program, but said that we have to monitor it and see how it’s going. Soon I will be delving into Express Entry.

One area that we talked about in our platform is to work to improve the situation of international students. They have not done well under this program. Now they need to get LMIAs [labour market impact assessments] for jobs and they have trouble doing that. We’re going to look at ways to improve things for students within Express Entry and the Canadian experience class.

We’re an aging society and we’re in competition with the United States and Australia, and it’s hard to think of a stronger group [of immigrants] than international students. They are educated, know something about the country, and typically speak English or French. We have to court them. One of the things we will do for sure is to re-establish the credit they used to get for their time spent in Canada toward citizenship.

Do you have any other plans you can share about other immigration streams?

Well, I will tell you one other area we’re looking at. Currently, it takes far too long to reunite spouses. When a Canadian marries a non-Canadian, it takes up to two years or more sometimes to properly reunite them, and this is way too long and much longer than other countries take. One of the priorities I will have is to address this issue. Processing times are too long in many areas, but one of most serious is in the case of spouses. We’re getting rid of that two-year thing. We’ll have spouses become permanent residents immediately.

When will this change take place?



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