Immigration Minister Jason Kenney says he has no plans to scrap the backlogged federal skilled worker program despite numbers that show a provincial program has been more successful in settling immigrants more evenly across Canada.
Kenney was commenting on statistics from his department that show the federal government's expansion of the Provincial Nominee program has been wildly successful at moving immigrants out of the Toronto-Montreal-Vancouver corridor.
The program allows provinces to choose a certain number of immigrants each year to fill labour shortages.
"One of the biggest challenges for my predecessors was such an inefficient distribution of immigrants across the country," Kenney told CBC NEWS in an interview.
"Ninety-two per cent used to settle in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, even though many of the best economic opportunities and labour shortages were in (other) regions of the country."
A decade ago, Ontario took in the lion's share of Canada's immigrants, with half going to Toronto and 60 per cent to Ontario as a whole. Last year, just 42 per cent went to Ontario, statistics show.
More newcomers are now heading toward smaller towns and cities in the west.
For example, Manitoba's share of immigrants has tripled to 5.6 per cent of the national total, from 1.8 per cent in 2001. In Alberta the share has nearly doubled, from 6.5 per cent in 2001 to 11.6 per cent in 2010. Similarly, in Saskatchewan the share of immigrants has increased to 2.7 per cent from 0.7 per cent a decade earlier.
None of that would have happened if provinces weren't given expanded access to provincial nominees since the Conservatives took power, Kenney argues.
"There's been a significant shift and I frankly think it's good for the country," he said. "There are regions and industries that have very serious labour shortages. And this distribution of immigrants is helping to address these problems."
Still, Kenney says he has no plans to scrap the federal skilled worker program, which continues to run a backlog and is plagued by years-long delays for applicants.
"I think immigration is about nation-building," Kenney said.
Kenney said the federal government has been "very generous" in accommodating the growth in provincial nominees.
"But there has to be a limit to that because I don't think it would be right for the federal government to completely abandon its role in the selection of economic immigrants. We need to mend the skilled worker program, not end it."
Kenney said next year the federal government will introduce a new, more "flexible" points system that will give credit to skilled tradespeople, a group previously shut out in favour of those with higher education. It will also confer points for having a job lined up in advance.
Kenney admits these changes are driven by the dramatic success of immigrants who come through the provincial systems.
"In fact, we see provincial nominees are getting significantly better incomes at least in their early years in Canada, as opposed to (federal) skilled worker immigrants."
The PNP has worked best in Manitoba, where the province has worked closely with companies and municipalities, says Peter Showler, an immigration expert at the University of Ottawa.
"Manitoba in particular has been very imaginative," he said. For example, a program to bring nurses from the Philippines brought them in groups which created built-in social support for them.
Another example is the Maple Leaf Foods meat packing plant in Brandon, Manitoba. In 2002 the plant was at risk due to poor retention of workers.
"The simple fact is we were experiencing a very high turnover of employees," said acting plant manager Dan Lenton.
The company partnered with the province to create a program to bring in temporary foreign workers and help them become permanent residents.
The plant has brought in more than 1,200 workers, mostly from Central America, more than half its current work force.
"We've been able to retain a high percentage rate of the people and they've stayed here in Brandon," said Lenton.
Still, Shower warns that not all temporary foreign workers get the same level of support to become permanent residents through the PNP program or otherwise. And that can leave too much power in the hands of employers.
"When you have very positive, future-looking employers, that works very well," he said. "If you have abusive employers, they can use that as a kind of threat or control to sometimes sustain improper labour practices."
Kenney also admits the PNP program has its flaws.
"On the periphery there are some integrity challenges. For example, low retention rates in Atlantic Canada. Some people from overseas are pretending to go to one province when in fact they had settled in Toronto or Vancouver.... So we're working with the provinces on shoring up the nominee program."
And Kenney says that while he can imagine further expanding of the PNP program in the future, he has his eye on those languishing in the federal skilled worker queue.
"We have an obligation to several hundred thousand people in that backlog. We cannot just shut the door on them either. So we have to work away at all these problems at the same time."
That may explain why recently released targets for the provincial program for 2012 are almost the same as this year's.