Canada's Citizenship and Immigration Department needs to do a better job keeping track of business-class immigrants, says the chairman of the parliamentary public accounts committee.

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Public accounts committee chairman Joe Volpe says he still doesn't know if problems have been fixed. ((Tom Hanson/Canadian Press))

Joe Volpe was reacting to the department's latest update on the progress it's making since a scathing report by Auditor General Sheila Fraser in 2009. She criticized its failure to keep track of who was coming to Canada and why.

She found that Citizenship and Immigration failed to assess "cost and benefits, risks and potential impacts" of its programs.

Fraser also worried that "work permits could be issued to temporary foreign workers for employers for jobs that do not exist."

Parliamentary rules dictate that federal departments must respond to auditor general reports to the public accounts committee, given that the criticisms usually involve money and whether taxpayers are getting efficient service.

In its so-called "action plan," the department gave specific dates by which it would accomplish certain tasks such as "completion of evaluations of the Federal Skilled Worker Program," or "improvements to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program," or complete "evaluations of the provincial nominee program."

Other than those general references to evaluations, however, there are no specifics or indications of which evaluations have been completed. That has led Volpe, the Liberal MP for Eglinton-Lawrence in Toronto, to conclude that politicians still don't know whether the department is fixing the problems outlined by the auditor general.

"You don't know who's coming in," he said Friday. "You don't know for how long they're coming in. So how do you demonstrate that the system works?"

What was said

The department failed to provide a representative to answer questions about the action plan. When they appeared before the public accounts committee last spring, officials such as deputy minister Claudette Deschenes promised to make changes.

"We agree with the auditor general," she testified on April 13. "So it's a matter that probably we should have had in place in a more systematic fashion, but it's being put in place now."

Volpe says he's still waiting.

There are many programs within a category designed to attract business immigrants called the Economic Class. The auditor general evaluated four of them: the Federal Skilled Worker program, the largest; the Canadian Experience Class, the newest; the Quebec Skilled Worker program, specific to that province; and the provincial nominee program, one that is growing quickly.

Working in tandem, these programs are designed to attract people with certain skills, be they professionals or blue-collar workers.

Provincial nominee program

The provincial nominee program has been the main tool that provinces such as Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and Alberta have used to attract labourers to work in places such as Alberta's oil patch.

And the federal government, which has the final say over who's allowed to stay, has allowed provinces like Alberta to increase the number of people they can attract under this program. In its written response to the committee this week, Citizenship and Immigration repeated its vow to "carry out a comprehensive evaluation" of the program in 2010. Now that the year has come and gone, it's unclear if that evaluation has taken place.

According to a CBC News analysis of the department's statistics, the provincial nominee program is one of the fastest growing areas in the business category, as provinces use the program to get the workers they need quickly into the country.

The program has been under intense scrutiny, not only from the country's top auditor general, but from some of her provincial counterparts as well. In an emailed response to the CBC, a spokesperson from Sheila Fraser's office acknowledged that "Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Prince Edward Island have all warned that the program is failing to track whether workers brought in by a province actually stay there."

In its 2008 report, Nova Scotia's auditor general concluded: 

"We found the province was not in compliance with key provisions of the Canada Nova Scotia Agreement on provincial nominees, notably in three areas. No formal program evaluation was completed. Nominees were not adequately tracked after their arrival in Canada which means that Nova Scotia cannot  assess whether the economic stream was successful in attracting and retaining immigrants in this province. Additionally, the requirement to provide adequate  information and co-operation to auditors of the program was not met. Throughout the audit, we encountered restrictions in obtaining the information required to complete our work."

Newfoundland's auditor concluded:

"The province does not know how many of the 530 individuals it nominated moved to Newfoundland and Labrador. Even though 214 nominees indicated that they intended to settle in the province, the department does not followup on their status and location after they enter Canada to determine whether the nominees actually settled here. The department does not know what, if anything, local businesses did with the investment provided by the nominee.… There were very few, if any, requirements on local businesses with regards to how monies they received were to be used."

And P.E.I. had this to say in its 2009 report:

"There were a number of elected officials and senior government officials who had ownership in corporations that received investment capital under the program. The question of conflict of interest in these situations has been raised."

An increasing number of workers who enter Canada under the provincial nominee program arrive on temporary work visas, but end up staying as permanent residents under the program.

A CBC News analysis of Citizenship and Immigration's numbers shows that the number of temporary workers who have become permanent residents under this program has increased almost eightfold from 2005 to 2009, the latest year for which figures are available.

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(CBC)

In her assessment of the nominee program, Fraser concluded that "it would be important for CIC to have a clear vision of how many immigrants should be selected under each category over a multi-year planning period, for example three years. The department has yet to determine this."

If you have feedback about the provincial nominee program, or any other aspect of the government's economic class program, please contact me at david_mckie@cbc.ca. The blog I wrote earlier this week about the government's business immigrant numbers is available here.