Fast-track immigration program long overdue

Applicants could address Alberta skills shortage

This week, federal Immigration Minister Diane Finley announced plans to fast-track immigration applications from skilled temporary foreign workers already employed in Canada -- and for foreign students who've graduated from Canadian universities, colleges and technical institutes.

It's a move that's long, long overdue.

Right now, foreigners here on temporary permits for work or study generally aren't allowed to apply for landed immigrant status from within Canada. Unless they are sponsored to work here by an employer under the provincial nominee program, they have to go home first and start the immigration process from abroad.

One of the few exceptions to that rule has been made for live-in caregivers, such as nannies. But up until now, if you were a nurse or plumber or pipefitter or engineer or chef or chartered accountant, you often had to leave Canada in order to reapply for admission.

On average, it takes about six years for someone applying to come here as a skilled worker to get his or her immigration application processed -- and there are some 600,000 people waiting in the queue.

At a time when we're desperate for skilled workers -- nowhere more so than in Alberta -- it's been a ludicrous situation.

We've had a resident population of new graduates, trained professionals and tradespeople, and we've been routinely kicking them out of the country and forcing them to the back of the line.

As a result, we've lost many potential Canadians, who could have brought their education, expertise, creativity and experience to our economy and culture.

But as of this autumn, skilled workers with two years of Canadian work experience, or foreign graduates with one year of work experience, will be able to apply to immigrate without leaving Canada. And they'll get extra credit for the time they've spent here.

Danielle Norris, with Citizenship and Immigration Canada, says those who qualify under this new Canadian Experience program will have their applications processed in months, not years.

"It doesn't mean that anybody who applies for it is going to get it," she says.

Applicants will still have to pass security and health clearances, for example.

Norris says Ottawa hopes the program will bring 25,000 skilled and educated new immigrants to Canada over the next five years.

Here in Alberta, where we seem to have a shortage of every kind of worker, the province is cautiously optimistic about the proposal.

"We still are getting a commitment on processing timelines, but anything faster is an improvement," says Janice Schroeder, with the provincial Department of Employment and Immigration. "We need skilled people. To be able to keep available, skilled people? We're happy about that."

Capital Health, this region's largest employer, is happy, too. Angie Harwood, Capital Health's senior director of human resources, says the new system could benefit "a couple of hundred" of its current international workers, particularly nurses and physicians.

"It's a win-win," she says. "It's going to be helpful for recruiting and helpful with retention, getting people to stay. It's difficult to change countries. Anything that eases the process helps."

The Alberta Federation of Labour doesn't see it that way. As of Dec. 1, 2007, it points out, there were 37,257 temporary foreign workers in Alberta. Of those, 14,842 were classed as professional or skilled workers, 15,187 were categorized as unskilled, and another 6,981 were labelled as unclassified or job unknown.

Gil McGowan, the AFL's president, says it's wrong to create a two-tier system that discriminates against unskilled workers -- who are the majority.

"We're in the process of creating an underclass of workers who don't have the same rights and privileges as other Canadians," he says. "If we need people, then they should all have the same right to come here as prospective citizens rather than disposable workers.

"This program flies in the face of Canadian values and the best Canadian traditions. If we'd had the same rules 50 or 100 years ago, most of our ancestors wouldn't have been able to come to this country."

From a humanitarian perspective, I see McGowan's point. It might seem unfair to recruit people to work here as agricultural labourers or nursing aides and then give them second-class treatment when it comes to immigration.

But as a nation, we have a right to recruit, target and fast-track the people with the talents and skills we need most, who will add the most, long term, to our economy and society.

And while the AFL calls the Canadian Experience class program elitist, it will also give preferential treatment to skilled workers such as butchers, bakers, mechanics, tailors, miners, masons, plasterers, pipe fitters, court reporters, firefighters and police officers -- not just doctors and engineers.

That said, no honest, hard-working person who longs to come to Canada should have to wait for years just to get their application processed. This new program, welcome though it is, is a Band-Aid on a gaping sore, one small fix to a severely dysfunctional immigration system.

What we really need isn't so much a patchwork quilt of programs, but a fair, transparent and efficient process, that works for every would-be immigrant. Until then, this is at least a small step in the right direction.

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First look

What Is the Canadian Experience Class Program? (Hint: it's not a course in eating doughnuts and watching hockey.)

- The program will allow managers, professionals and skilled tradespeople who have worked here for two years on temporary work permits to apply for landed immigrant status from within Canada.

- It will also apply to recent graduates of Canadian universities, colleges and technical institutions, who have studied here for a minimum of two years and who have at least one year of work experience.

- Applicants do not have to be nominated by an employer or province, or sponsored by a family member.

- Applications will be fast-tracked. Instead of waiting for years, applicants are promised an answer within months.

- The government expects 25,000 people to enter the country under the program within five years.

- Some of the occupations eligible under the program include lawyers, doctors, social workers, psychologists, senior managers, engineers, accountants, registered nurses, masons, underground miners, oil and gas drillers, gas fitters, chefs, bakers, fishermen, plumbers, electricians, auto mechanics, artists, actors, firefighters, cobblers, cabinet makers, teachers and veterinarians.

Edmonton Journal, Page B4, Thurs Aug 14 2008
Byline: Paula Simons

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