Auditor-General Sheila Fraser has exposed major problems with key aspects of Canada's immigration system, releasing a damning report that finds Ottawa is bringing in big changes with little understanding of the potential consequences.
In a report tabled Tuesday in Parliament, Ms. Fraser said decisions in the Canadian immigration system are increasingly shifted to provinces and Canadian employers without any follow-up to root out fraud and abuse.
She took direct aim at the foreign worker program, which brings in an increasing number of often low-skilled workers for jobs ranging from oil sands labourers to construction workers on Olympics facilities and live-in nannies.
Ms. Fraser said little is being done to catch the abuse occurring on all sides of the program. Workers are particularly vulnerable, she said, given that they often don't speak English, and owe their status in Canada to their employer.
She also told reporters that some Canadian employers use the program to bring in their relatives.
"It looks a little suspicious on the face of it," she said, suggesting Canadian employers could bring relatives in their homeland to the country as employees, thereby bypassing family-reunification rules.
Colombian electrician Henry Builes took part in the program and said it is clearly discriminatory. He was among a group of Latin American workers who put in long hours at below minimum wage on the dangerous light-rail tunnel construction work for the Vancouver 2010 Olympics.
The group complained about the conditions, and the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal ruled in its favour last year. The ruling is under appeal.
"Because we were from a Third World country, they treated us as though we were worth less," he said Tuesrday at a construction site in New Westminster. He remains in Canada because he has made an application for refugee status.
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney Tuesday noted that the program plays an important economic role. He said his department established new rules to protect foreign workers.
"There are tens of thousands of employers who tell me that they would go out of business if they couldn't find people to fill those jobs, and we think it's a good program," he told reporters. "It's needed some mending. We've done that in these regulations."
He also said he's working to improve oversight of immigration decisions made by provincial governments.
Ms. Fraser's report notes that the Provincial Nominee Program - which allows provinces to preselect applicants - could soon become the largest source of economic immigrants in Canada. In contrast, the target level for the Federal Skilled Worker category - which is based on a points system - is in a steep decline.
The report notes that Ottawa does not impose any minimum standards on workers selected by the provinces, and calls for these programs to be reviewed.
Provincial auditors-general in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador and Prince Edward Island have all warned that the program is failing to track whether workers brought in by a province actually stay there.
The Auditor-General also reviewed the impact of controversial new powers awarded to Canada's immigration minister that were passed as part of the Conservative government's 2008 budget bill.
"We found that the Department [of Citizenship and Immigration]has made a number of key decisions in recent years without properly assessing their costs and benefits, potential risks, and likely impact on programs," Ms. Fraser said. "Some of these decisions have caused a significant shift in the types of foreign workers being admitted permanently to Canada. There is little evidence that this shift is part of any well-defined strategy to best meet the needs of the Canadian labour market."
In her first use of these new powers last year, then-immigration minister Diane Finley dropped the list of eligible occupations for the skilled worker program to 38 from 351. However, many applicants weren't aware of the change, and the department must issue refunds to about 45,000 people.
The Auditor-General's report warns that the early evidence shows the Conservative government's 2008 change is not having the desired effect of reducing applications enough to help Canada address its large backlog of requests.
With a report from Dawn Paley in Vancouver