By SUNIL RAO
Newly minted Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, Christopher ‘Chris’ A. Alexander, has set himself an ambitious agenda.
“(My predecessor) Jason Kenney has set a high standard,” he admitted. But literally days into the job, he’s beginning to prove himself no slouch either.
Topping his agenda is no less a task than a thorough revamp of our Citizenship Act.
“We first got our Citizenship Act in 1947, and since then there’s been only one major update, under Trudeau, in 1977. So that is a priority for me,” he stated.
Then he added: “People want to know what programs are ongoing, and what comes next — and for me, my three main questions are: tackling the backlog for family reunification; moving more closely to an EoI (Expression of Interest) model; and fixing the investors’ program.”
Alexander was meeting members of the Indo-Canada Chamber of Commerce on a bright, sunny summer Friday afternoon, at an exclusive event on the 35th floor of the Ontario Investment and Trade Centre, which commands an unimpeded view of the Toronto Downtown Bay Street area, where Canada’s corporate elite congregate.
The significance of the venue, and the sun shining brightly onto the wall-to-wall plate-glass windows overlooking the city was not lost on the attendees. As ICCC President Naval Bajaj noted, with a slight smile: “The fact that this meeting with you, Minister, has evoked such a great deal of interest — such that so many people are here, rather than out there, on a Friday afternoon — speaks volumes. We’re committed to working with you, and would like to hear what the priorities are for you, and your ministry.”
Alexander had the floor — and the newly minted minister duly obliged, being unusually candid about putting his cards on the table.
The erstwhile career diplomat who carved out a solid reputation especially as Canada’s first resident ambassador in Kabul, and has among other awards been named as one of Canada’s ‘Top 40 under 40’ in 2006, is known as a centrist.
Media reports have quoted him as saying: “The Tories I admire have been people who were committed to nation-building,” not just to fiscal conservatism.
While Canadians have in the relatively short period Alexander’s been in Parliament more often seen him with his elbows up, as Parliamentary Secretary to the often under-fire Minister of Defence Peter McKay, at the ICCC meeting last week they saw the minister presenting a different avatar.
He essentially came across as personable, even charming, while being articulate and well-informed — but most importantly, he appeared forthcoming about the initiatives underway, and willing to entertain new ideas.
Alexander spoke frankly about several of the initiatives currently under discussion — even if at least some of them are likely to prove controversial — indicating in which direction Canada’s immigration drive appears headed.
• The EoI model:
Canada could well subsume all immigration worker programs under an Expression of Interest model.
“That gives prospective immigrants a strong degree of certainty that they’re skills are actually needed. And it would reduces the time people would take, from getting off the plane to getting into the workforce — literally from years down to months.”
So if a prospective immigrant has a job waiting here, it could be a shoo-in. If not — it isn’t as if our doors are slammed shut… but still, good luck with that.
• The Investors’ Program:
The government says this has proven problematic since several immigrants coming in under the program may not have respected the terms of the visa under which they came in.
“But our Start-Up Visa for Entrepreneurs has been received enthusiastically in Silicon Valley — if not by the US Government — and we will pilot similar such programs in India and elsewhere.”
This new stream requires entrepreneurs to have won either angel investment of $75,000 or venture capital funding of $200,000 for their new start-ups, to be eligible for a Canadian visa.
• Extending the PR period:
As part of renewing the Citizenship Act, and keeping the issue of national security front and centre, especially after having spent so many years in Afghanistan, Alexander plans to increase the number of years before a Permanent Resident becomes eligible to apply for citizenship.
The connection between PR duration and national security?
There has been rampant abuse of the system, and threats to system integrity, across many levels: a man may leave his wife and kids behind here in Canada and go back to a high-paying job in the Middle East or elsewhere, coming back here after three years and claim citizenship; recent Canadian citizens caught in the cross-fire in Lebanon have a Canadian ship funding on the Canadian dime ferry them back to safety; and Boston and the Toronto 18 highlight the fact that homegrown terrorism is a very real threat.
Hence, Alexander says, increasing the period a permanent resident has to stay in Canada before becoming eligible to apply for citizenship to more than three years “is absolutely a possibility”.
But he rules out the possibility of extending it to 10.
“We’re restoring the integrity of the system — and no issue is more important than that of national security. I saw it first-hand in Afghanistan… there are also more terrorist organizations listed in Pakistan than in any other country.
“We’ve also seen cases of extremism in Canada — not necessarily from people from any specific part of the world — but we have seen it!”
Hence a longer PR wait ahead.
• Working with the provinces:
The Provincial Nominee Program could well be extended in scope.
“The PNP has been very successful, especially in Western Canada, and today more than 10 per cent of all immigrants come through this program.”
Going forward, this stream too may come under the EoI umbrella, or through a separate stream.
As far as settlement services — specifically, federal funding for newcomer settlement programs — “we’ve tripled the total amount… but of course the provinces play a bigger role here”, especially since these issues are also linked to factors such as healthcare, etc.
• Tackling the backlog for family reunification:
While the ministry has stepped up the number of applications processing in 2012 to 21,000, and plans to expand it further in 2013, Alexander accepted his ministry may be facing a certain amount of flak for totally shutting tight the gates to any fresh applications.
That’s because they’re trying to wrestle down the backlog. Further, he pointed out, wait-times for parents may currently be eight years or more — which is scant solace for a senior.
“We’re aiming for a turnaround of 1-1.5 years,” he said.
As for students over the age of 18 but seeking to come in under their parents’ sponsorship, “the age of majority is, after all, 18. And once their 19 or 20, they have other avenues open to them” to immigrate.
• Tackling the backlog for those awaiting citizenship:
“It’s absolutely a priority!”
• Visas for attending family event:
Sometimes near and dear ones can’t attend a family event here in Toronto — say a wedding — owing to not being able to meet any among a number of immigration criteria, including financial requirements. Would it be possible for the sponsor here in Toronto to be allowed to take on the responsibility for their stay here?
“That’s possible,” Alexander said. “We’ve built a ‘trusted hub of confidence’ with various industry groups, and it might be possible to apply the same rules here.
“We’ll of course have to check out the feasibility, the resources involved, etc — but do send us your suggestions, even fully fleshed out ideas, and we can explore possibilities.”
• Among other job prospects available in Canada:
— Under the apprentice stream (see accompanying story);
— We also need managers here: “We probably have a skills deficit for managers, or professional enablers of business development,” says Alexander, in response to a suggestion. “It is in fact one of the core competencies we’re looking for.”
The coming weeks and months should prove a very hectic period indeed on the immigration front. Watch this space.
By SUNIL RAO