Investigation Immigration Backlog Targeted

OTTAWA-The federal immigration department is crafting plans for a $2 billion investment to reduce a backlog of 700,000 would-be immigrants.

The investment, to be hammered out over the coming weeks, is the first step in the department's strategy to cut waiting lists and dramatically boost immigration, sources say.

The plan, which has yet to go before cabinet, is contingent on the department getting funding over and above its annual budget of more than $800 million.

Immigration Minister Joe Volpe refused to talk numbers yesterday, but admitted the department's annual budget isn't enough to fix current problems, let alone handle dramatic boosts to immigration.

"That's not very much at all ... if you're asking the system to be fixed, that's really, really insufficient," Volpe said.

It's clear the department will need even more funding to meet the demands of provincial and territorial immigration ministers who gathered in Ottawa yesterday - and sent the clear message that more immigrants are needed to meet critical labour shortages.

"We have a booming economy, we have a shortage of skilled workers. We need people in British Columbia at all levels of the employment spectrum," said Wally Oppal, the province's multiculturalism minister.

The federal immigration department is working on a strategy to boost immigration to 320,000 a year over five years.

But first it wants to tackle the chronic backlogs that can mean some would-be immigrants are stuck waiting up to two years for admission to Canada. At $3,000 per case, clearing the backlog over two years would cost $2 billion, although Ottawa would recoup a chunk of the cost through processing fees, sources say.

Volpe cheered yesterday's meeting for producing a "historic" three-page document setting out broad goals to improve Canada's immigration system, which this year will accept an estimated 245,000 people.

They include increased efforts to recruit immigrants, reduce backlogs and waiting times, retain skilled immigrants and ensure that professionals can use their talents.

"For the first time ever, ministers responsible for immigration and citizenship issues have come together and agreed unanimously on a plan going forward," Volpe said.

Mike Colle, Ontario's minister of citizenship and immigration, cheered news that the province is close to signing a long-awaited immigration deal with the federal government.

Ontario takes in more than 50 per cent of all immigrants - 125,110 in 2004 - but is alone among the provinces in not having an immigration accord with Ottawa. As a result, it only gets $819 in federal funding per new arrival, compared with close to $4,000 given to Quebec.

Colle said the pending agreement would boost Ontario's share to $3,400 at the end of five years. "That has been agreed to," he said in an interview. More important than the money, Colle said, is the fact the deal would also give the province the ability to fast-track skilled workers to meet specific labour shortages.

Colle and Volpe agreed that there are no hurdles to the deal. However, it was delayed this week when the Tories and Bloc Québécois stalled new funding for the immigration department, a tactic Colle condemned as "unconscionable."

"They don't understand these programs go to help newcomers integrate ... learn how to speak English, get a job," Colle said.

Immigration ministers also agreed yesterday that more must be done to encourage immigrants to settle outside the big urban centres, traditionally home to three-quarters of all newcomers.

There was broad agreement that more must be done to help foreign-trained professionals who are shut out of Canada's job market because of restrictions by regulatory bodies. n CTV Newsnet's Mike Duffy Live on Monday, Volpe said his priorities are fixing the system, building capacity and focusing on outcomes.