OTTAWA - A new analysis of the sweeping changes made by the Conservatives to Canada's immigration system suggests too much emphasis is being placed on short-term gains.
The long-term needs of Canada are being ignored in favour of an immediate economic focus, says the study by the Maytree Foundation, a private Toronto-based think tank.
The study identifies six dozen changes made to immigration policy since 2008, from the creation of entirely new programs to tougher standards for citizenship.
While some of the changes are positive, the overall approach to them is problematic, the study suggests.
"The future of Canada may be negatively affected by the recent emphasis on short-term labour market needs, the lack of evidence-based policies, a retreat from traditional democratic processes, and a less welcoming environment for immigrants and refugees," says the report, written by two former federal and provincial bureaucrats who now work in the private and academic sectors.
Since 2008, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has set out to change a system that he's described as broken and unresponsive to both Canada's needs and its place on the world stage.
He's eliminated massive backlogs in skilled worker applications, given provinces more room to cherry-pick immigrants, overhauled the refugee system, created new programs to make it easier for some types of immigrants to remain in Canada and scrapped old ones that essentially amounted to people being able to buy their way in.
In a recent speech, he said the overall goal is to make sure immigration works for Canada's economy and that immigrants have greater opportunities upon arrival.
"We must make sensible changes to our immigration program designed to attract those people who are the most likely to succeed and integrate, making good incomes for their families, finding good jobs, starting successful businesses so they can realize their potential and achieve their dreams in this land of opportunity like generations before them," Kenney said last month.
"That’s what all of these immigration reforms are designed to do, in addition to strengthening the integrity of our system."
But the report's authors question the capability of the government to reach those goals, suggesting that the reforms are too piecemeal.
"Many of the changes that have been implemented or proposed since 2008 relate to individual immigration streams, classes and programs," the report says.
"There has not been a concerted attempt to look at the interaction among them and the bigger picture."
For example, the report cites pending changes to sponsorship rules around parents and grandparents.
The changes appear to be based on the belief that they are a drain on the system, the report said, but that's not necessarily the case.
Further, they don't take into account the possibility that economic-class immigrants won't want to come to Canada if they can't bring their families.
To match the massive changes, the report makes over 50 recommendations, calling on the government to gather and use more reliable data about existing programs.
The report also suggests the government look to recently arrived immigrants and refugees to fill labour gaps, rather than allowing employers to recruit from abroad.
The report comes as the government prepares to release its target for immigration levels next year.
The number has consistently hovered around 250,000, though there have been demands to increase those numbers, primarily to fill empty jobs.
The report found that compared to 2001, economic immigrants are taking up more spaces than refugees or family class applicants and suggests that's problematic.
"The size of the pie remains constant despite projections of demographers and economists who argue for significant increases in permanent immigration to Canada to respond to population decline, labour and skill shortages as a result of our aging population and low fertility rates — a literal need for nation building," the report said.
Kenney has been carrying out consultations on the levels in recent weeks.
But while the report's authors applaud him for travelling across the country to speak to stakeholders, that consultation hasn't been meaningful, they say.
"The changes have been realized through a tightly controlled political process without allowing for real engagement and discourse," the report says.
"Consultations which have taken place have generally been by invitation only, on individual issues, or consisting of online questionnaires."
Kenney has found himself forced to make quick changes to some implemented and proposed policies in recent months after public outcry exposed potential pitfalls with amendments.
Among them was a change to make sure government-resettled refugees wouldn't lose access to health care under a new benefits system.
Another was changes to detention provisions for refugee claimants who come to Canada as part of a large group.
Both times, he said it was proof that the current system of review works.
But the report suggests that the government is building policy without evidence to support it which in turn creates an inconsistent approach.
For example, there's been an increase in enforcement in areas such as deportations, citizenship fraud, bogus immigration consultants and those who arrive with the aid of smugglers, the report says.
But vulnerable live-in caregivers, low-skilled temporary foreign workers and seasonal agricultural workers remain exposed.
The public wants to know the system is fair and will be more supportive of immigration if they feel enforcement measures are working, the report said.
"However, it is risky to contextualize immigration within a law and order agenda, to implement enforcement measures in a way that may be perceived to be uneven and unfair, and to label people as 'queue jumpers,' 'bogus refugees,' and 'marriage fraudsters,' the report said.
"The overemphasis on certain types of enforcement and the mixed and negative messaging may ultimately reduce support for immigration among Canadians."