Canada’s immigration system would get a massive overhaul worth $800 million if a Liberal government is elected on Oct. 14, Stéphane Dion said Saturday.

The Liberal leader promised to clear the current backlog of 900,000 immigrants waiting to come to this country, bring in a new business and visitors’ visa system and introduce a series of programs to help new Canadians learn one of the country’s official languages and have their professional credentials recognized here.

Dion was speaking in the Richmond, B.C. riding held by a former Liberal cabinet minister, Raymond Chan, where more than half of potential voters are from the Chinese-Canadian community.

To loud cheers, he said the changes to the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Protection Act brought in by the Harper government last June were unfair and didn’t address the challenge facing the system.

A Liberal government, Dion said, would reverse those changes, including removing the discretionary power of the minister of immigration to fast track some categories of immigrant over others.

Dion didn’t mention that he and his party abstained from voting on  the Conservative legislation, which the government had declared a matter of confidence that could force an election if it were defeated in parliament.

End arbitrary powers of minister

"The success of the Canadian economy largely depends on the success of our immigration strategy," he said, "This strategy must be built on fairness, not arbitrary powers of the minister of immigration."

Dion said the current system of processing visa and immigration applications in Canada and at consulates around the world was "low-tech and out of date." This would be modernized, he said, with an investment of $400 million over four years.

"With this investment we will reduce the backlog, we will speed up processing and most of all we’ll bring more new Canadians into our country," Dion said.

In addition, the Liberals say they would spend money helping immigrants integrate more successfully and get better jobs in Canada.

Language training for spouses and families too

A program to teach newly arrived immigrants one or both official languages would be set up at a cost of $200 million, Dion said. That training would be available to children and spouses as well.

Other aspects of the plan included:

  • A fast-track program for international students and live-in caregivers wanting permanent residency.
  • A special "Welcome Canada" multiple entry visa, good for five years and renewable, to help families visit their Canadian immigrant relatives.
  • $200 million to encourage foreign-born professionals to upgrade their existing credentials, or take the courses necessary to have qualifications recognized here.
  • Encouragement for provinces and cities who need skills and labour to have immigrants settle there, outside of Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.
  • A special business visa called the Canadian Express Pass for frequent business visitors.

"The desire to welcome new Canadians, a firm commitment to multiculturalism, ensuring economic success for all, these are values that guide Liberals and they also guide Canadians," Dion said.

CBC’s Susan Bonner, who’s travelling with Dion, said immigrant voters are sought by all political parties and are particularly crucial in B.C.

 "This is a province that could help decide this election," she said, "and the ethnic vote is important here."

Liberals promise apology for ship

It was the second day in a row the Liberals have targeted campaign messages to immigrant voters in Western Canada.

On Friday night in Surrey, Dion told a largely Indo-Canadian audience that a Liberal government would apologize in the House of Commons for Canada's treatment of the Komagata Maru — a ship carrying Sikhs and Hindus to Canada in 1914 that was turned away by customs officers in Vancouver.

"We cannot be blinded by the mistakes we made," Dion said.

Harper did issue an apology to Indo-Canadians at an outdoor event in Surrey in August but some members of the Sikh community have been insisting that the House of commons was the only appropriate venue for such a gesture.