The Liberals pledged Friday to make family reunification easier for new immigrants in an apparent effort to court voters who have been critical to the Tories' advances, especially in the seat-rich regions surrounding Toronto and Vancouver.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau unveiled a number of measures to reform Canada's current immigration policies during a campaign stop in the Ontario riding of Brampton Centre, which is currently held by the Conservatives. The package of promises was anchored by a pledge to make it easier for new Canadians to sponsor relatives living abroad for resettlement here.
- LIVE BLOG | Get breaking news from the campaign trail
- POLL TRACKER: See how the parties are doing
- Find your riding on the new electoral map
Trudeau said that if a Grit government is elected on Oct. 19, it would double the number of applications for parents and grandparents that could be submitted each year to 10,000. The Conservatives capped the number at 5,000 in 2013, saying that the number of older immigrants allowed into Canada must be limited because of the burden they place on the health-care system and other social security programs.
- Mobile users, follow the live blog here
The Liberals would also double the budget for processing applications, a measure that Trudeau said would significantly cut down the multi-year wait times currently holding up the immigration process for thousands of applicants.
The cap was part of the Tories' overhaul of the family reunification category of immigration, which began in earnest in 2011 with a temporary moratorium on new applicants for reunification to deal with a backlog of tens of thousands of applications.
In May 2013, then citizenship and immigration minister and current Conservative candidate Jason Kenney said it was "just not right" that a growing number of older immigrants were ending up on welfare, calling it "an abuse of Canada's generosity."
In place of new applications, the Conservatives introduced 10-year "super visas," which allow the family members of some new Canadians to stay in the country for up to two years. Though it was initially billed as a temporary measure, the super-visa program was made permanent in 2013.
Since the Conservatives secured a majority government in 2011, they have shifted Canada's immigration approach away from a first come, first serve basis, to one that emphasizes economic migration.
Starting in January of this year, for example, the government began fast-tracking permanent residency for young, highly skilled immigrants who can fill the country's labour needs. Under the express entry system, the government has focused on connecting skilled workers with employers.
In his announcement Friday, Trudeau stressed that reuniting families also has economic benefits, saying that older relatives often provide critical help to young parents, such as child care, so that they can go to work each day and save money on day care costs. The money saved then makes its way back into the economy through consumer spending and increased productivity.
"We believe that family reunification is an important help and driver to the middle class," Trudeau said.
"When someone needs help with their work-life balance, the first call they make is to a family member, and if that family member is in the Philippines or in India, it's hard to get the daycare you need so you can go to a job application."
He also promised that the spouses of recent immigrants would receive permanent resident status immediately upon arriving in Canada, bypassing the two-year wait period currently in place. A Liberal government would also restore the maximum age for dependants from 19 to 22, making it easier for immigrants to bring their older children to Canada.
The measures are expected to cost $500 million by the fiscal year 2019-2020.
Tories slam plan
In an afternoon news conference, Kenney called Trudeau's proposal "a series of misrepresentations and false promises," saying that the Conservative government has managed to efficiently deal with a backlog of nearly 850,000 permanent residency applications that had accumulated under the previous Liberal government.
He said that Conservative changes to the immigration system were informed mainly by recent immigrants and that they resulted in a record number of new Canadians taking the oath of citizenship last year.
The Tories have managed to cut wait times for permanent residency applications from years under previous Liberal governments to just months, Kenney said, adding that the super-visa program has been "hugely popular" among immigrant families.
He also said that the Conservative government has managed to successfully "crack down" on fraudulent asylum claims and on a system that allowed people to exploit the generosity of Canadian taxpayers.
Targeting lost voters
The decision to announce the proposed immigration reforms in Brampton was a calculated one for the Liberals. Brampton is among the most diverse cities in Canada, with a population that has more than doubled in the last two decades — growth fuelled primarily by an influx of immigrants from India, Pakistan and other South Asian countries. Today, more than half of Brampton's population is made up of immigrants.
- French-language debate pits passion over reason
- 5 feisty exchanges in the French-language leaders' debate
- Taxpayer-funded poll found Canadians back Harper policy on niqabs
There is also an additional seat up for grabs in the city this election thanks to the redrawing of electoral boundaries after the 2011 election — bringing the total to five.
Brampton is among a number of cities with high immigrant populations that until recent elections were considered Liberal strongholds. The Tories, however, have made headway in these communities by championing more conservative social and economic policies that have resonated with many new Canadians.
Trudeau's campaign stop today could be seen as a direct appeal to win some of these voters back to the Liberal camp.
"We are the party that has always been open to new Canadians and to ensuring their prosperity," Trudeau told the crowd of supporters at a steel manufacturing facility.
Repealing Bill C-24
Part of that continuing support for immigrants, Trudeau said, will be to repeal some elements of the controversial amendments to the Citizenship Act made under Bill C-24, which passed into law in May and created a two-tiered citizenship system.
Dubbed the Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act, the amendments give elected officials the power to revoke the citizenship of dual nationals convicted abroad of certain serious offences, such as terrorism or treason.
The amendments are being challenged in court by a coalition of civil liberties groups, who argue they violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
"The bill creates second-class citizens," Trudeau said.
"No elected official should ever have the exclusive power to revoke Canadian citizenship. Under a Liberal government, there will be no two-tiered citizenship. A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian."
Kenney called Trudeau's opposition to the amendments "an extreme" and "indefensible" position and said that the "vast majority" of new Canadians supports the changes. People across the political spectrum agree "that if you violently repudiate your loyalty to Canada, you surrender your citizenship," Kenney said.