Nearly half of the skilled immigrants who qualified for a chance to obtain permanent residency within the first three weeks of the launch of a new immigration system were not applying from abroad but were already in Canada, CBC News has learned.

Canada launched a new system known as express entry on Jan. 1 as a way to recruit the best and brightest of foreign nationals to fill open jobs for which there are no available Canadian workers.

The report, obtained by immigration lawyer Richard Kurland through an Access to Information Act request, shows there were 775 candidates who made it to the top of the express entry pool in the lead up to the first-ever draw. The new data lists their country of residence and their citizenship.

Where did the candidates come from? Many — 346, or 45 per cent of "the top 775 candidates in the pool" — resided in Canada, according to the Jan. 22 report prepared by the Department of Citizenship and Immigration.

Thirteen per cent were living in India, followed by 4.5 per cent in the United Arab Emirates. Smaller percentages resided in other countries.

"Please note that data is intended for internal CIC use only and has not yet been released to the public," said an immigration official in an email dated Jan. 22. The cautionary note was underlined.

First draw in late January

The government offered permanent residency to 779 skilled workers in its first draw held on Jan. 31.

"Express Entry is already getting impressive results in its first month," declared Immigration Minister Chris Alexander in a written statement issued on Feb.2.

"The fact that everyone who was invited to apply for permanent residence in this round of invitations already has a valid job offer or provincial nomination shows that Express Entry is working to fill Canada's existing labour market gaps," Alexander said.

How does the new express entry system work?

  • ​Applicants can see how they rank in the pool based on a point system.
  • Skilled immigrants receive up to 1,200 points based on various factors.
  • Up to 600 points are allotted to applicants with a job offer or a provincial nomination.
  • Up to 500 points are assigned for factors such as age, education level, language proficiency and work experience in Canada.
  • Up to 100 points for transferable skills such as education, foreign work experience and a certificate in the trades.
  • Individuals with the most points are considered top candidates.
  • A draw is held every two weeks to determine who receives "invitations to apply" for permanent residency.
  • Once an invitation is received, a prospective immigrant has 60 days to accept or decline. 
  • If an applicant doesn't receive an invitation after 12 months, he or she has to apply again.

The first 779 skilled workers, according to that same statement, included "professionals in natural and applied sciences, and industrial, electrical and construction trades."

Temporary foreign workers get first dibs

Kurland said "the overwhelming majority would be expected to be temporary foreign workers" because the new points system rewards people already working in Canada.

Under the express entry points system, skilled immigrants who receive a permanent job offer backed by a positive labour market impact assessment are among the first to receive an offer to apply for permanent residency. (The assessment, or LMIA, is a document employers need to hire a foreign worker over a Canadian one.)

While immigration officials have publicly stayed mum on the subject of giving temporary foreign workers permanent residency through express entry, they have been more open to discussing the matter with stakeholders.

Sarah Anson-Cartwright, the director of skills policy at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, told CBC News she has had numerous conversations with immigration officials who said the majority of candidates that were offered express entry at the onset were temporary foreign workers.

"The first three draws for express entry were mostly temporary foreign workers with valid LMIAs," Anson-Cartwright said based on exchanges with officials from the Department of Citizenship and Immigration.

The government picked 779 skilled workers in its second draw on Feb. 7 and 849 in the third draw on Feb. 20.

Fewer skilled workers from China?

The new report made public through the Access to Information Act also shows that India, Philippines and Pakistan were the top three source countries for prospective skilled immigrants under express entry.

Notably absent from the top was China, which in 2013 was the top source country for permanent residency in Canada, according to Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

The newly released data ranked China sixth, behind Ireland and Nigeria but slightly ahead of Iran. 

"That is a surprise," said Kurland, who obtained the data after it was circulated internally among immigration officials.

The data also revealed that nine candidates were listed as "stateless" and three as "unspecified." The U.S. ranked 19th.

While Kurland conceded that this is a very early snapshot, he also told CBC News that "If the trend holds, it looks like express entry is going to be a real game-changer for where Canada sources skilled workers."

The office for Immigration Minister Chris Alexander directed CBC's request for more information to departmental officials who in turn were not immediately available for comment.

As of April 10, the government has offered to fast-track the permanent residency of 7,776 skilled immigrants under express entry.

Express entry candidates in the pool

Top 10 source countries for 775 highest-ranking candidates:

1. India: 228 candidates or 29.4 per cent

2. Philippines: 122 candidates or 15.7 per cent

3. Pakistan: 46 candidates or 5.9 per cent

4. Ireland: 34 candidates or 4.3 per cent

5. Nigeria: 29 candidates or 3.7 per cent

6. China: 29 candidates or 3.7 per cent

7. Iran: 21 candidates or 2.7 per cent

8. U.K.: 19 candidates or 2.4 per cent

9. Egypt: 18 candidates or 2.3 per cent

10. South Korea: 14 candidates or 1.8 per cent

Source: Jan. 22. report by Citizenship and Immigration Canada