tp-ott-kenney-cp-00093179

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney boasted this week of a huge increase in immigration to Canada in 2010. But new figures show the department plans cuts to overseas visas in 2011. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Employment and industry groups are reacting negatively to a government plan to cut substantially the number of visas issued for federal skilled workers this year.

New figures obtained through Access to Information show the government will cut all economic class visas by nearly seven per cent, and federal skilled worker visas specifically by 20 per cent, in 2011.

"The notion of reducing the number of skilled workers we aim to take in 2011 is certainly a move in the wrong direction given where we expect the economy right across the country to be heading," said Elsbeth Mehrer, director of research and workforce strategy for Calgary Economic Development. 

"This is a time when we need to ensure we're ramping up to meet worker demand," Mehrer told CBC News Tuesday. "And while we had some great success last year in terms of having our highest ever number of immigrants coming into the country, we need to make sure we keep the foot on the gas to meet labour demand in the future." 

In question period Monday, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney noted that in 2010 Canada hit a record high by welcoming "281,000 permanent residents to Canada, 106,000 more than the Liberals did shortly after they came to office and cut immigration levels."

Overseas visa targets

   2010 2011   % change
Federal skilled worker visa   69,915   55,900  - 20
Provincial nominees visas   36,650   40,300   + 9
Total economic class visa 161,630 151,000   - 6.6
Source: Citizenship and Immigration Canada/Access to information release

And when asked about his department's cuts to another category, visas for parents and grandparents, Kenney responded by emphasizing his long-standing effort to boost economic immigration.

"There are tradeoffs. And this government is focused on the priority of Canadians, which is economic growth and prosperity," he said. "Mr. Speaker we need more newcomers working and paying taxes and contributing to our health-care system. And that's the focus of our immigration sytem."

The problem is, the government isn't robbing Peter to pay Paul — it's robbing them both, says Richard Kurland, a Vancouver immigration lawyer.

Kurland, who obtained the target numbers through Access to Information, notes the government is not boosting economic visas overall. In fact, across all categories (including federal skilled workers, provincial nominees, Quebec skilled workers, and the Canadian experience and business classes) there will be 6.6 per cent fewer economic class visas issued this year over last.

"The 2011 targets dramatically show the substantial reduction in federal skilled workers and a slight increase in provincial selection," Kurland says. "We really should be targeting more skilled workers to make up for Canadians' inability to demographically reproduce. We need the young workers to pay the taxes to support the pensions for Canada's aging population."

bc-080714-GP5

Vancouver immigration lawyer Richard Kurland obtained details about planned cuts to overseas visa targets through Access to Information. ((CBC))

Officials at Citizenship and Immigration caution that the targets found in the documents do not represent the final number of immigrants to be accepted this year. That's because the targets are for overseas visas only and do not include inland claims.

However, experts say the extent of the cuts — specifically to parents and grandparents and skilled worker categories — mean there will undoubtedly be significantly fewer immigrants accepted in those categories this year.

Michael Atkinson, head of the Canadian Construction Association, says the cuts to the federal skilled worker category won't affect the construction industry directly, because those companies have had trouble for years getting workers through the point system, which is heavily skewed toward post-secondary education and language proficiency.

But Atkinson is still concerned about  the government's motivation for cutting the economic visas overall.

"If the motivation behind reducing those target levels is, 'Well gee, the economy is improving, we don't need as many skilled workers,' then I would suggest that is a huge mistake, given the fact that just our aging workforce, our aging population, our low fertility rate shows us and other industries that it is only going to get worse.

"We are facing bigger challenges in the future with respect to building our workforce and training them than we ever have before," Atkinson says.

He adds his industry expects to face a shortfall of 400,000 workers by 2018 if government policies — both federal and provincial — don't move with the times.

Atkinson notes the government has taken a step in the right direction by opening a review process of the point system for federal skilled workers.

'We are facing bigger challenges in the future with respect to building our workforce and training them than we ever have before.' —Michael Atkinson, Canadian Construction Association

The irony, according to Mehrer, is that the government has managed to reduce wait times for federal skilled workers through a new system of ministerial instruction brought in in 2008. Workers under the old system still wait for years for a decision, but new applications that fit one of a list of 29 occupations are being processed in seven to eight months.

That success is leading many employers to believe the government's current motivation is a political one, rather than a policy decision.

"It's really difficult to say, but certainly the speculation I hear from employers here is that it's based on political pressure that may be coming from other parts of Canada, where the unemployment remains higher and where the understanding of the labour market dynamics in Alberta and in much of the west are less clear," Mehrer says.

She adds that the economic recession is no argument for the cuts, as things are improving rapidly out west.

"We're already starting to see re-employment of Canadians and Albertans who lost their work during the recession," Mehrer says.

"I'm already hearing from some industries who recognize that their talent pools are shrinking in terms of the skill set they are going to need. So as much as they may not be in foreign markets right now looking for talent, we certainly expect that by the latter half of this year there will be certain skill sets we simply won't have available in the province."

Louise Elliott is the immigration reporter for CBC Ottawa. She can be reached at louise.elliott@cbc.ca.