A new immigration system designed to attract highly skilled workers from around the world to meet Canada's labour needs isn't living up to its promise, say businesses and prospective immigrants nearly 10 months after it was implemented.
The Conservatives launched a new system known as express entry on Jan. 1, comparing it to a dating site, with Ottawa acting as chief matchmaker between "the best and brightest" immigrants and Canadian employers looking to fill open jobs.
- Express entry: early immigration data shows many already in Canada
- Click here for more of CBC's coverage of express entry
Jason Kenney, who was responsible for the Harper government's transformation of Canada's immigration system during his time as immigration minister, on Friday touted express entry as "a system that's fast, that connects people to the labour market so they can realize their dreams and fulfil their potential upon arrival in Canada."
"New economic immigrants are arriving in Canada in months rather than years," Kenney said during a news conference in Vancouver.
"A growing percentage have jobs lined up before they get to Canada rather than being stuck in survival jobs for years following their arrival."
Majority already in Canada
While that may be the goal, express entry has opened the door to very few new economic immigrants. To date, it has favoured a large number of temporary foreign workers and other foreign nationals already in the country.
Over 85 per cent of the foreign nationals who were selected for admission under express entry in the first six months of the year — 11,047 out of 12,304 — were already in Canada, according to a report published by the Department of Citizenship and Immigration in July.
The report shows that three per cent were living in India, followed by two per cent in the U.S. and one per cent in the Philippines. Even smaller percentages resided in other countries.
As of July 6, Canada had issued 844 visas to foreign nationals and their dependents resulting in only 411 admissions being fast tracked for permanency residency.
"Implementing the express entry system was a significant undertaking and we continue to monitor it closely," the government report said, cautioning it is only "a snapshot" intended to capture "one moment in time."
The report said Canada will meet its immigration quota not through express entry but by drawing from a backlog of applications submitted under the old system.
The majority of new economic immigrants to Canada will not be drawn using the new system until it's in full flight in 2017.
'Unusable' for businesses
Businesses say the system's biggest flaw is a new requirement borrowed from the newly reformed temporary foreign worker program, which Kenney and Chris Alexander announced last year following a series of stories published by CBC's Go Public team alleging abuse of the program.
Under express entry, it isn't enough that economic immigrants have to line up a job before applying to come to Canada — that offer must also be backed by a positive labour market impact assessment. That assessment, or LMIA, is a document all employers now need to hire a foreign worker over a Canadian one.
'It's made it unusable for many employers that we hear from and for small and medium businesses.' - Sarah Anson-Cartwright, Canadian Chamber of Commerce
This is a new requirement under an economic stream that sees upwards of 250,000 new permanent residents admitted each year.
"It's made it unusable for many employers that we hear from and for small and medium businesses," said Sarah Anson-Cartwright, the director of skills policy at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, the largest business association in the country representing some 200,000 employers
Members of the Chamber, she said, are disillusioned with a process that has become too "onerous." Employers are complaining that their assessment forms are being rejected due to inadvertent omissions or typos.
"If it weren't for that LMIA requirement, I think we might see more opportunity for employers to feel like this is a system that actually would facilitate the entry of some highly skilled individuals that they've identified," she said in an interview with CBC News.
'Frustration' from immigrants
The points system under express entry rewards foreign nationals who receive a permanent job offer backed by an LMIA with an automatic 600 points out of a possible 1,200. The other 600 points are allotted based on criteria such as age, education level, language proficiency and work experience in Canada and abroad.
Nearly all the candidates selected in the first two months of the year had job offers supported by LMIAs. But by mid-March, the government was choosing foreign nationals with less than 500 points — "candidates without job offers or provincial nominations," the report said.
Two weeks ago, that score dropped to 450 points out of a possible 1,200.
"Repeatedly, people are expressing their frustration with the points system," said Mark Holthe, an immigration lawyer and partner at the law firm of Holthe Tilleman based in Alberta, where labour market conditions have deteriorated due to a downturn in the energy sector.
"You could be a food-service supervisor with an LMIA-supported job offer and you would rank higher than the rocket scientist from abroad," he said in an interview with CBC News.
While the candidates with the most points are chosen, there's no minimum points level required to qualify, which means there is no "magic" number to get into Canada and that has left prospective immigrants feeling upset and confused.
"It's extremely difficult for any foreign national to really connect with a Canadian company," said Holthe.
Job-matching tool 'ineffective'
Another sticking point is a much-touted job-matching tool that would see candidates who register on the government's job bank matched with employers looking for workers.
The tool was not operative when express entry launched in January, and while it is active now, those who use it say it's "ineffective."
"I have yet to find an employer who has found a candidate through that job-matching system," said Anson-Cartwright adding "they may be out there."
Anecdotal evidence suggests, according to Holthe, that in many instances, jobs are already filled by the time applicants see a posting on the government's job bank.
The job-matching tool is "quite poor," he said.
While immigration officials are said to be working tirelessly to iron out the kinks, complaints about the online system are still common.
"At the heart of express entry is an online electronic portal that is fraught with bugs and glitches," said Evelyn Ackah, founder and managing lawyer at the law firm of Ackah Business Immigration Law in Calgary.
"It's been nine months already. It's time for the government to fix a system that doesn't work for Canadian businesses and that is putting off highly skilled candidates who no longer see Canada as a viable option," she said in a news release.