Growing backlogs, disgruntled applicants – Canada’s immigration system has been disrupted by COVID-19. He’s the man in charge of fixing it

Sean Fraser says he knew what he was getting into when he was chosen to be Canada’s next immigration minister.

“Things are at such a tense point due to COVID-19 that I see an opportunity to make an extraordinary difference from this particular starting point,” said the Nova Scotia MP.

“There is no shortage of challenges that await me.

Few other federal departments have experienced as much disruption as the immigration system during the pandemic, with the operation shutting down and staff working remotely with dilapidated infrastructure and limited travel for newcomers overseas. because of the border closures.

He laid bare the many existing problems with immigration operations, from outdated technologies that still relied on paper applications and processing, to the red tape accumulated over the years and the lack of resources to meet the insatiable demand for immigration to this country.

In his first major media interview since taking over the job Oct. 26 from Marco Mendicino, now Minister of Public Safety, Fraser, a rising star in the Trudeau government, highlighted some of the priorities that require his immediate attention.

As countries around the world all try to reopen their economies at the same time and compete for the same pool of workers, he said Canada must remain competitive in the global search for talent.

Streamlining the system and digitizing the application process will be crucial in increasing the processing capacity of the immigration system and improving the user experience, he added.

“We need to decide if we’re going to increase the overall levels to meet the intense demand we’re seeing from people who want to come to Canada,” Fraser said.

“If there must be 400,000 people who can come to Canada in any given year and we have 700,000 applicants, it doesn’t take a PhD in mathematics to understand that this is going to lead to a further build-up of the backlog. We therefore need to make strategic decisions about how many people our communities can successfully accommodate. “

As of July 31, according to the Immigration Department, more than 561,700 people were awaiting permanent residence and 748,381 had temporary residence applications pending as students, workers or visitors while the backlog for the citizenship amounted to 376,458 people.

Fraser says he doesn’t have a target timeline for how long it will take to clear the backlog, but there are many initiatives already in place to meet that target – and more changes will be made as well.

“I do not want to communicate to you today that in a short time all these problems will be solved. They weren’t made overnight and they won’t be fixed overnight, ”he said.

“I want to speed up the work that will help eliminate some of these backlogs. This will make the process less painful for families trying to lead a new life or reunite with loved ones or find a job to contribute to our economy.

Fraser said the digitization of citizenship applications has already taken place and that in the coming months there will be “serious reforms” on family reunification applications.

There could also be legislative changes to remove what Fraser calls “bottlenecks” from the system as new policies are developed.

For example, he stated that it just does not make sense to deny entry to a foreign national with a pending family reunification application to be with his or her spouse or children in Canada due to his intention to stay in the country permanently. The provision of the law has set many families apart while their claims are pending, sometimes for years.

“It’s easy to get bogged down in a conversation about the number of cases and inventory. But in my role, you won’t be successful if you don’t realize that each of those cases or numbers in the inventory represents a human being, ”said Fraser.

“It will take longer than most people would like, longer than I would like. But if you want to change a system as large as Canada’s immigration system, do it right, and be successful, you have to put in the time.

Born in Antigonish and raised in Merigomish, a small community in Pictou County, Nova Scotia, Fraser is one of the few immigration ministers in rural Canada.

Like many young people from small, remote communities, he and his five sisters had to leave for large urban centers for studies and employment opportunities. With an undergraduate degree in science from St. Francis Xavier University, the 37-year-old studied law at Dalhousie University and Leiden University in the Netherlands before working in a large law firm in Calgary.

Many communities are grappling with an aging population and the exodus of young people, and immigration is a crucial part of the solution, he said.

“When more people around the world come in, come to your community, open businesses, open restaurants, create a more vibrant place to live, you see more Canadians flocking to these communities to have that kind of culture and experience. vibrant lives as well, ”Fraser said.

Fraser said most of his days since his appointment as immigration minister have been around the resettlement of Afghan refugees. The Liberal government has pledged to welcome 40,000 new Afghan arrivals and so far only 3,500 have arrived in Canada.

“Canadians are right to be frustrated with what is happening in Afghanistan,” he said. “The reality on the ground right now is that we don’t have access like we did in Syria, and that’s the equation that a lot of Canadians, I think, are trying to do.

The government’s strategy is to work with partners in Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates and the United States – all struggling to resettle Afghan refugees – to bring Afghans to a permanent home. “Our commitment is not wavering,” he said.

Although he was honored by Maclean’s magazine as “Best Speaker” and a finalist for “Rising Star” in the last government, Fraser said he’s just a guy who cares deeply about people.

“I really want to make sure Canada treats people with a sense of dignity, respect and fairness.”

Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter who covers immigration for The Star. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung

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