The B.C. government has abruptly shut the door on most of its provincial immigration program for the next three months, saying new federal limits on temporary foreign workers have triggered an unmanageable flood of applicants seeking entry to Canada through British Columbia.
Jobs Minister Shirley Bond said Tuesday that no new applications will be accepted until July 2, giving her staff time to process a growing backlog while her ministry looks at what qualifications it will seek from those hoping to come to B.C. through the provincial nominee program (PNP). Some exceptions will be made in high-need categories such as health-care workers.
Under the program, Ottawa allows the provinces limited control over immigration. This year, B.C. will grant permanent resident status to 5,500 immigrants to fill labour-market needs.
Applications to the provincial program surged after the federal government introduced immigration changes, in particular tighter controls on its temporary foreign worker program. A year ago, B.C. could process a PNP application in 12 weeks; now the wait list is 13 months, and there are already more people in the queue than B.C. can admit this year.
"The system is trying to adjust to the changes that the federal government has imposed," Ms. Bond told reporters Tuesday. In addition to hiring new staff to process applications, she said the province needs time to review what kinds of job-skill gaps it hopes to address through immigration. She added that applications already in the queue will be processed on a first-come, first-served basis.
The provincial government has been warning that British Columbia faces a skills shortage with an anticipated construction boom in the north. It has long called for more control over immigration to address such shortages.
However, many of the temporary foreign workers in B.C. were being hired for low-wage jobs in the hospitality industry. The federal government was forced to make changes after allegations surfaced last year that some employers – particularly restaurants – were abusing the program.
Ottawa is phasing in limits on the number of temporary foreign workers that large- and medium-sized companies are permitted to hire and is promising more inspections of workplaces, bigger fines for companies that abuse the program and increased application fees for employers.
As a result of those changes, Ms. Bond said, applications for the program dropped sharply and there has been a spike in applications to the provincial program. "We need to make sure the system we use in the [provincial nominee] program actually lines up with some of the changes that have taken place," she said, adding: "This is not about reconstructing an avenue for temporary foreign workers."
Ian Tostenson, president and CEO of the B.C. Restaurant and Foodservices Association, welcomed the freeze. He said a problem was created when Ottawa applied the brakes to the temporary foreign worker program without an alternative in place.
"The federal government rocked the boat on the temporary foreign worker program and it was done for short-term, political optics," he said. "We need to discuss the provincial nominee program in a strategic way, and I think that is what is going on here."
This is not the first time B.C. has hit the pause button on one of its immigration programs. In 2012, the province suspended a program after a suspicious surge in the number of business applicants for a category that promised a speedy visa in exchange for a $125,000 bond. The spike came after the federal government placed a moratorium on its own investor and entrepreneur visa programs.
Shane Simpson, the NDP critic for labour and skills, said the province should have taken a look at its immigration controls then. "Three years later, nothing has been fixed and we are just kicking the can down the road again," he said. "It's concerning. We know the Premier is prepared to allow a significant numbers of [temporary foreign workers] into B.C. … We are going to see a B.C. strategy to facilitate that."