Minister Sean Fraser has Canada needs to lead by example in making it easier for immigrants to come here
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada Minister Sean Fraser says he doesn’t need to look any further than his backyard to see why increased immigration is a key ingredient to Nova Scotia’s and Canada’s future prosperity.
Since being named the minister last fall, Fraser, who represents Central Nova, says he frequently reflects on two things that happened early in his political career. Elected in 2015, two of the biggest campaign issues in the rural Nova Scotia riding he now represents were the planned closures of River John Consolidated School and an eight-bed mental health unit at the Aberdeen Hospital in New Glasgow. Other issues included an aging population and the outmigration of young people.
Fraser says since then, through a mix of economic circumstances and policy decisions by different levels of government, more people are moving into the community than leaving and the population is growing at a rate he’s never seen in his lifetime.
“The questions I am getting asked are more likely to relate to whether we have the services and housing to accommodate the people who are coming in, rather than a focus on the services we are losing because they’re leaving,” Fraser says.
He sees what’s happening there as a template. “It’s become increasingly evident immigration is part of the path forward for every community in Canada, not just our biggest cities,” Fraser says.
He says the need for increased immigration in Nova Scotia and Canada come down to labour shortages and aging demographics, but notes Nova Scotia is already being hit harder by its aging population, particularly in rural communities.
“If you go down Main Street in New Glasgow, in Yarmouth, in Middleton, in Shelburne or Halifax, you’re going to see ‘Help Wanted’ signs everywhere, whether it’s a restaurant, a hotel, a shop floor, the airport, every employer is looking to add a complement of staff,” Fraser says.
Nationally, it’s a similar picture. Fraser says before the Omicron wave of the COVID-19 pandemic hit during the 2021 Christmas holidays, Canada had recovered 107 per cent of the jobs that were lost at the peak of the pandemic. At the same time, there were about 900,000 job vacancies.
“If we’re going to take advantage of the moment we’re in, we have to win the global race for talent and attract workers here to fill those positions where employers couldn’t find Canadians in their own communities to fill them,” Fraser says.
By the end of the decade, the federal government projects the worker-to-retiree ratio will be 3:1. In the 1970s, the worker number was closer to seven. “It does not take an actuarial scientist to realize that trend should worry us all,” Fraser says.
He says the only solutions are to be more productive and/or have a larger labour force. Fraser cautions that without improvement, Canada will be a much different country than the one it is now.
“We’re not going to be able to count on having universal access to health care, we won’t be able to keep those schools in small communities like River John open, we won’t be able to depend on roads being constructed or repaired,” he says.
In Nova Scotia, the province welcomed 9,020 permanent residents last year, the highest number on record, which broke the previous high by 19 per cent. Nova Scotia’s population hit the one-million mark midway through December.
To help Atlantic Canadian provinces meet their labour and demographic needs, the federal government announced last December the Atlantic Immigration Pilot was being made permanent and is now the Atlantic Immigration Program.
In February, Fraser laid out the federal government’s immigration targets. Annually, it plans to welcome immigrants at a rate of around one per cent of the population, which translates to 431,645 permanent residents in 2022, 447,055 in 2023, and 451,000 in 2024. Last year, Canada took in more than 405,000 new permanent residents, the largest annual number in the country’s history.
Achieving these targets will be no easy feat, especially given immigration backlogs were a problem prior to the pandemic and were only exacerbated by it. In late February, the federal government announced a plan to modernize Canada’s immigration system.
“By making investments in the system, hiring more staff, converting it to a digital process and allocating more spaces for newcomers, we’re going to be able to improve this,” Fraser says. “We’re already seeing progress.”
Fraser says the immigration system can be “incredibly frustrating” for the people going through it. Long waits mean people may choose to go elsewhere, where the waits aren’t as long.
Some of the steps the federal government is taking to modernize the immigration system include spending $827 million to overhaul its IT system, hiring more than 500 new processing staff, and digitizing the application process. Fraser says the current paper-based system creates “enormous challenges in the 21st century when you are using 20th century technology.”
By digitizing the process, it will mean work from different Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada offices in Canada and around the world can be reallocated as needed.
“It’s going to dramatically enhance the productivity of our department as a whole,” Fraser says.
Digitization will also mean people can track the status of their applications online.
Fraser says the federal government is spending $85 million to reduce processing times for work permits, study permits, temporary resident visas, proof of citizenship cards, and permanent resident cards.
“Those measures are going to help get us back closer to the service standard we had pre-pandemic,” Fraser says.
He notes that in January and February, more than 100,000 applications for permanent residents were approved. When he spoke with My Halifax Experience in early March, he anticipated the war in Ukraine would put more pressure on Canada’s immigration system, but remained optimistic about where things are heading.
“I feel confident we’re on the right track and have been very impressed with the progress we’ve made in only a few short months,” he says.