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COVID-19 might have lasting impacts on the way Canada handles immigration: Minister

Last month the government welcomed a record number of permanent residents
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister Sean Fraser rises during Question Period, Monday, December 6, 2021 in Ottawa. \THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

The federal immigration minister says some of temporary measures that have helped the government meet its targets this year could be here to stay even after the pandemic ebbs away.

During the pandemic, as it became more and more difficult to bring people to Canada from abroad, the government turned to people already in the country to meet its immigration targets.

While some of the new permanent residents this year have been immigrants and refugees who arrived in Canada through traditional means, the federal government focused on allowing temporary residents to make the country their permanent home.

In an interview with The Canadian Press, Immigration Minister Sean Fraser said the measures were designed specifically to address pandemic-related problems, but could be helpful after the pandemic passes.

He pointed to the “guardian angels” program as one example. That program granted permanent residency to asylum claimants working in the health-care sector.

Fraser has been ordered to continue the approach as part of his mandate letter from the prime minister.

“I think that we’ve learned some things during this pandemic that we will be able to adopt on a go-forward basis,” Fraser said.

On Thursday, Fraser announced the government surpassed its ambitious immigration target of 401,000 new permanent residents for 2021 — the most newcomers in a year in Canada’s history.

The target goes up in 2022. The government hopes to welcome 411,000 new permanent residents by the end of next year.

While bringing new immigrants into Canada is a major pillar of the government’s plan to address the country’s labour shortage, Fraser said the economic argument for keeping temporary residents is just as strong.

When temporary visas expire, employers need to find new candidates to train and fill the job that person just left, he said.

“The people who are new to the country are providing a little bit of extra fuel to the economy. The people who are here now that are being made permanent residents are certainly preventing the problem from getting worse,” he said.

The outcomes of the programs that impact employment have generally been positive, Fraser said, but the government has a little more analysis to do before it commits to a particular pathway.

Fraser also said the government hasn’t abandoned more traditional immigration streams, which he expects will pick up once the pandemic improves and restrictions ease on international borders.

The other lasting immigration legacy of the pandemic is the massive backlog of 1.8 million applications waiting to be processed.

The government has drawn criticism from opposition parties for allowing the backlog to swell to such a size. December’s economic update from Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland earmarked $85 million in the next fiscal year to deal with the backlog.

Fraser called the funding a bridge to help officials process more applications faster while the department finishes the work of digitizing its archaic system.

The current paper-based system means that if someone wants to check on the status of their application, they need to call their member of Parliament, who calls the minister’s office, who calls an immigration worker, who pulls a file out of a drawer.

Fraser said he envisions a system where spousal applicants will be able to check their status online.

“We are in the midst of the most important modernization of Canada’s immigration system since its inception,” he said

The work to digitize records has already begun, but it could be a few years before the system is fully up and running.

Still, Fraser expects the bridge funding and increasingly digital system will allow Canada to keep up the high numbers of newcomers through the rest of the pandemic.

“Should the government have a desire to grow further from there, I anticipate we will have the capacity to do much more even than we are today at an all-time record pace,” he said.

—Laura Osman, The Canadian Press

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