In Retrospect: Jason Kenney as Gatekeeper of Canadian Immigration

Three weeks ago, Jason Kenney stepped down as Minister of Citizenship, Immigration, and Multiculturalism, ending his role Canadian immigration’s gatekeeper. During his five-year term, he implemented a series of transformative changes that served two main objectives: to attract “the best and the brightest” from around the world in order to strengthen the Canadian economy, and to target immigration-related crimes.

Whether or not Kenney’s legacy on immigration has generated a lasting positive impact remains to be seen. However, this question can begin to be answered by examining the major policies adopted by the former minister and how they came to be.

Changing the System’s Landscape: Backlogs

Compared to his predecessors, Kenney welcomed a larger number of immigrants during his time in office, granting 280,000 permanent residencies in the year 2010 alone, the highest in the past fifty years[1]. Yet, while admitting more immigrants than before, Kenney pursued a series of initiatives— including the Action Plan for Faster Immigration and the Action Plan for Faster Family Reunification—to address the backlog in processing immigrant applications, a problem that had plagued the Canadian immigration system for years.

According to Kenney, the cause of the backlog is that the number of applications submitted far exceeds the annual quota for admitting permanent residents set by the government; Canada receives an average of 450,000 applications per year, but the number of acceptance ranges from 240,000 to 265,000[2]. Due to CIC’s inability to process the growing volume of applications, many applicants are subjected to waiting times that in some cases stretch over years.

In solving the problem, more important than merely increasing manpower is to narrow down the pool of eligible applicants in order to align the number of immigrant applications with CIC’s processing capacity. In order to achieve this, Kenney has put in place a temporary moratorium on certain programs, such as the Immigrant Investor Program, to pause the influx of applications, and has also elevated the requirements for those wishing to move to Canada.

The country’s immigration system operates on a points-basis. If a prospective immigrant obtains a minimum number of points, he is eligible to be added to the large pile of applications faced by CIC. Increasing the minimum point requirements renders the application more efficient for the federal government. The Canadian immigration system has thus been modified to favour two main assets among prospective immigrants: language proficiency and Canadian experience. Kenney implemented a required level of language proficiency to several programs, such as the Federal Skilled Worker Program (FSWP), across the immigration system. Since the beginning of this year, applicants to those programs must prove that they have surpassed a certain level of language proficiency in the Canadian Language Benchmark (CLB) system. This change not only narrows down the demography of eligible applicants, but it also pre-emptively deals with the language barrier challenge, a major cause of unemployment and underemployment among newcomers.

Besides language proficiency, having experience living, studying, and working in Canada has also become a strong asset for prospective immigrants. For instance, the Canadian Experience Class (CEC), an immigration option for international students and professionals working in Canada, is now the fastest growing immigration stream in the system[3]. By reducing the minimum work requirement in the CEC, Kenney has thus attempted to retain foreign nationals educated in Canada.

Welcoming the Entrepreneurs, Controlling Canada’s Aging Population

The Start-up Visa is arguably the most notable highlight in Kenney’s record at CIC. Launched in April this year, this visa is a five-year pilot program that collaborates with Canadian venture capitalists and angel investors to specifically target foreign entrepreneurs. To promote the new program, Kenney even made a trip to the Silicon Valley, and boldly ran an advertising campaign.

The requirements for the Start-up Visa are high and the quotas remain small, but the motive is clear: to attract the young, innovative, and educated.

On the other hand, Kenney has also put forth measures to avoid the potential responsibility of caring for senior immigrants. Launched in December 2011, the Super Visa is a ten-year multiple entry visa that enables the parents and grandparents of recent immigrants to stay in Canada for a maximum of two years per visit. According to Kenney, the Super Visa is popular among the parents and grandparents of immigrants, as they do not necessarily prefer staying in Canada for a long period of time, but prefer frequently visiting their children or grandchildren. The Super Visa spares them the hassle of repeatedly having to renew their entry visas, which in turn adds to the backlog in the immigration system. However, the given condition of this program is that all living and medical expenses of those parents and grandparents rest entirely on their respective immigrant families. More importantly, unlike the Family Sponsorship Program (FSP), the Super Visa does not entail an opportunity for its holder to apply for permanent residency.

“If you think your parents may need to go on welfare in Canada, please don’t sponsor them […] we’re not looking to add people as social burden to Canada,” Kenney quoted in CBC news. “We want to see that people are paying their taxes to help us as taxpayers, fund the cost of mom and dad’s health care. This is one way that we can deal with some of the abuse of our generosity in the program.”

Indeed, the introduction of the Super Visa takes away the potential health care and welfare costs that Canada has to bear when parents and grandparents of immigrants obtain permanent residency after spending ten years in Canada without any social benefits. From an economic standpoint, having young immigrants to rejuvenate the Canadian economy on one hand and limiting the pool of social welfare recipients on another does make Canada more economically competitive. In this sense, Kenney’s motivation to build a stronger Canadian society through immigration is understandable. Yet, his utilitarian mindset toward immigrants and their families can put a lot of settled newcomers at great unease.

To explain, one must examine the situation from the perspective of an immigrant. A large majority of Canadian immigrants come from developing countries without universal health care and a well-established social welfare system[4], which means that elders are often financially dependent on their children. For instance, Chinese families tend to operate on a familial welfare norm in which the parents bear the costs of raising their children, and the children take responsibility to financially support the parents as they age. Thus, on top of facing the widespread problem of unemployment and underemployment, many new immigrants also need to concern themselves over the welfare of their aging parents or grandparents at home. In the end, the Super Visa does make visiting Canada more convenient for parents and grandparents, but it may not be a convenience that certain immigrant families can afford in the long run, especially if they must add to the costs expensive private health care plans for their dependants.

Every year, from 2008 to 2011, an average of 66,557 “economic immigrants” (skilled workers, investors, provincial nominees, etc.) came to Canada to contribute to economy, and only about 7648 parents and grandparents were admitted as permanent residents[5]. Kenney’s request to immigrants to build a stronger economy to sustain the current health care and welfare system for aging Canadians while denying their own parents’ and grandparents’ access to social benefits seems to disregard the immigrants’ specific needs. In this way, Canadian immigrants tend to be seen as a widely instrumental workforce whose sole purpose is to fulfil the economic goal of the Canadian society.

At the core of this stricter stance, Kenney’s popular appeal seems to be based on constantly reiterating the newcomers’ apparent abuse of the country’s benevolence, greatly downplaying the many contributions that the majority of immigrants make to Canada on a daily basis. When talking about the Super Visa program, Kenney was quick to portray the immigrant’s interest in providing their elders with a comprehensive health care as straightforwardly undeserved, instead of seeking a common ground between the government and its newcomers’ interests.

“It seems to me that this sort of thing constitutes an abuse of Canada’s generosity”, he claimed. “We also have the most generous family reunification programs. We’re one of the only countries […] that even allows grandparents to be sponsored. We allow for more parents     and family members to be sponsored than most other developed countries in relative terms […]”

If Kenney’s mindset of welcoming the young and disposing of the old without thinking on behalf of immigrants gets carried on, it is doubtful that the new minister can project a friendly image to prospective immigrants or establish just immigration policies in the near future.

Settling Newcomers: Prosperity or Disillusionment?

Over the course of his five-year term as the head of Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Jason Kenney invested substantially on settling immigrants. In his first year, all provinces, with the exception of Ontario and Quebec, received an increase of approximately 25.88% in funding for newcomer settlement, and all territories received on average an increase of 3% from the fiscal years of 2008-2009 and 2009-2010[6]. Kenney helped set up Immigration Partnership initiatives with certain municipal governments and promised a total of $1.4 billion invested over a five-year period in 2009[7]. The funds went into providing language training, employment assistance, community engagement, and other services for new immigrants.

Other programs and online services aimed at assisting prospective and landed immigrants were also established. The Federal Internship Program and the Young Newcomers Internship Program are small-scaled initiatives that enhanced work experience of newcomers. Similarly, the overseas Canadian Immigrant Integration Program, which provides free orientation for admitted immigrants in their home countries before arrival, was made permanent in 2010. Moreover, CIC also went electronic with its operation, launching an online Help Centre with interactive features.

However, even though a large amount of effort has been put into settling immigrants and integrating them into the Canadian labour force, highly skilled immigrants still face the widespread challenge of unemployment and underemployment. During the recession in 2008, the unemployment rate for newcomers (living in Canada for less than five years) was at 10%, compared to 5% for Canadian-born and established immigrants, reported the Toronto Star[8]. In addition, according to Mesbah Sharaf, an assistant professor at Concordia University,[9] even for those who were employed, approximately 70% of male and 65% of female immigrants were reportedly over educated for their current position. It thus remains commonplace in Canada to see engineers driving cabs and doctors flipping burgers.

This large “brain waste” of Canadian immigrants entails serious long-term consequences. According to a publication by the Women’s Studies International Forum, immigrant women with professional skills, a disadvantaged minority in the labour force, are often deskilled over time; They have significantly larger chances of becoming underemployed, or perpetually unemployed housewives over time after arriving in Canada[10].

Seeing these numbers, it is only natural to ask oneself: after recruiting immigrants from abroad and spending heavily on settling them, why is then the Canadian economy still unable to effectively take advantage of their skills? For immigrants who have gone through the trouble of starting a new life in a foreign country, do they see prosperity or disillusionment?  Many attribute the cause of the mismatch between jobs and skills to factors that pertain exclusively to immigrants, such as the language barrier, their doubtful credentials, or their lack of connections in a professional field. However, this problem may not be as one-sided as it seems.

When seeking jobs, some immigrants express that they get rejected for positions that they are well-qualified for due to their lack of Canadian work experience. While CIC is busy importing skilled professionals from abroad, domestic Canadian employers may not necessarily see these immigrants as “the best and the brightest.” Working on the side of the employers and encouraging them to learn to recognize and give due merit to the skilled immigrant’s credentials may be something that the new minister Chris Alexander can work on.

On Refugees and “Foreign Criminals”

Kenney promised to uphold Canada’s humanitarian tradition in regards to refugees, but a couple of legislations passed by his office spoke otherwise. Reforms to the Interim Federal Health Program and the Faster Removal of Foreign Criminals Act evoked much criticism from the public, which now denounces a lack of compassion in Kenney’s immigration policies.

In April 2012, CIC announced funding cuts to the Interim Federal Health Program (IFHP), which provides temporary health-care coverage to refugee claimants and others in the process of applying for permanent residency.  Before this change in the program, individuals without income support from the Resettlement Assistance Program (RAP), such as privately sponsored refugees, accepted refugee claimants awaiting permanent residency, and those facing deportation, were not financially responsible for their medical expenses and costs of supplement health care (i.e. vision care, dentistry, mobility assistive services). The reforms eliminated the supplemental health care benefits and limited basic health care to urgent circumstances for these individuals.

Kenney attempted to justify the reforms by pointing at those who took advantage of refugee health care benefits, and how reforms could save money for Canadian taxpayers. However, the claim elicited protest from refugees and some health-care professionals who saw the reforms as a violation of Canada’s long standing humanitarian tradition. The Toronto Star even gave extensive media coverage to refugees who were denied of necessary medical attention tot he point of risking their lives[11].  It is difficult to decide whether the stories of refugees deprived of health coverage are more valid than Kenney’s arguments, but it is certain that Canada’s compassionate reputation in the large refugee community has been tarnished over the past few years.

Not only did Kenney take a tougher stance on refugees, he also passed a controversial Bill-43 Faster Removal of Foreign Criminals Act during his term at CIC. The legislation now gives the immigration minister discretionary power to deny entry to foreign nationals on the grounds of national security. It also enables the government to bypass the Immigration Appeal Division (IAD) in regards to deporting Canadian permanent residents convicted of crimes punishable for over six months in jail, as compared to two-years in the past. Many legal observers, including Canadian Bar Association (CBA), are concerned about the resulting loss of appeal right for permanent residents with minor offenses.

More interestingly, Kenney has labelled certain permanent residents who may have lived in Canada since childhood as “foreign criminals.” His attitude makes one doubt whether he genuinely cares for immigrants living in the country, as well as question how much weight the Canadian government gives to a permanent residence status.

Chris Alexander, the new Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, is a conservative Member of Parliament for the riding of Ajax-Pickering, Ontario. Let us hope for the best that Alexander will think on behalf of Canadian immigrants, and introduce just policies that continue to build a stronger Canada.

[1] Statistics Canada. “Annual Number of Landed Immigrants in Canada, 1852 to 2010.”Statistics Canada. N.p., 12 June 2012. Web. 02 Aug. 2013. <>.

[2] Kenney, Jason. “Speaking Notes for The Honourable Jason Kenney, P.C., M.P. Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism.” Citizenship and Immigration Canada. N.p., 26 Mar. 2013. Web. 02 Aug. 2013. <>.

[3]CIC. “News Release — Canada Welcomes Record Number of Immigrants through Canadian Experience Class.” Citizenship and Immigration Canada. N.p., 28 Feb. 2013. Web. 02 Aug. 2013. <>.

[4] CIC. “Facts and Figures 2011 – Immigration Overview: Permanent and Temporary Residents.”Citizenship and Immigration Canada. N.p., 2011. Web. 02 Aug. 2013. <>.

[5]CIC. “Facts and Figures 2011 – Immigration Overview: Permanent and Temporary Residents.” Citizenship and Immigration Canada. N.p., 2011. Web. 02 Aug. 2013. <>.

[6] CIC. “Backgrounder – Settlement Funding Allocations for 2009-2010.” Citizenship and Immigration Canada. N.p., 22 Dec. 2008. Web. 02 Aug. 2013. <>.

[7] CIC. “News Release – The Governments of Canada and Ontario Partner with the Regional Municipality of York to Help Newcomers.” Citizenship and Immigration Canada. N.p., 24 Sept. 2009. Web. 02 Aug. 2013. <>.

[8] Keung, Nicholas. “Immigrants Hardest Hit by Recent Recession, Study Says.” The Toronto Star. N.p., 15 July 2011. Web. 02 Aug. 2013. <>.

[9]Clea, Desjardins. “Immigrants: Highly Educated, Underpaid.” Concordia University. N.p., 23 Jan. 2013. Web. 02 Aug. 2013. <>.

[10] Guida, Mann. “Gender, Work and Migration: Deskilling Chinese Immigrant Women in Canada.” Science Direct. Women’s Studies International Forum, June-July 2004. Web. 02 Aug. 2013. <>.

[11] Keung, Nicholas. “Toronto Rally Urges Ottawa to Reverse Refugee Health Cuts.” The Toronto Star. N.p., 17 June 2013. Web. 02 Aug. 2013. <>.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *