Six years ago, Sun Mingliang thought he had discovered something wonderful. With his background managing a plastics company, he believed he qualified for immigration to Canada under the Federal Skilled Workers Program. A native of Shenzhen, China, he applied, along with his wife and young daughter, to immigrate and was so certain of success that he spent thousands of dollars on English classes for the three of them.
But instead of the life in Canada that he dreamed of, Mr. Sun was set to spend the upcoming weekend sleeping on the pavement outside the Hong Kong skyscraper that houses the Canadian consulate. Furious at a change in immigration law that cancels applications filed before 2008 in an effort to reduce backlog, the 43-year-old says he will go without food until Monday in a desperate effort to get the attention of Immigration Minister Jason Kenney.
Mr. Sun was among several dozen protesters who gathered outside Hong Kong's Exchange Square on Friday, shouting slogans and delivering two letters of protest to diplomats who came down from their 14th-floor offices to meet them. A few of the demonstrators pitched tents on the sidewalk and said they planned to stay there all weekend.
"The new policy is a heavy blow for us. So many years of waiting, so much time invested, so many years of hoping. If they told us earlier, we'd have made other plans," he said, speaking by mobile phone as he prepared to bed down for the night outside the consulate, the same place where he filed for the visa in 2006. "This hunger strike is my way of communicating my helplessness and sadness. It's resistance by physical means."
Anger at the changes is high in Hong Kong and southern China. Many people there have family ties to Canada, which accepted a flood of immigrants from Hong Kong before 1997, when the former British colony rejoined China. Of the 284,000 applicants worldwide who would be bumped out of line by the changes, about 12,000 are from mainland China or Hong Kong. The government has set aside $130-million to refund application fees and says applicants are free to try again under the new criteria.
"We applied to immigrate to Canada because we believed that Canada is governed by the rule of law and treats everyone equally. Sadly, your conduct reveals an alternative, sinister side of Canada, one mirroring the same attitude toward the people [we]in autocracies are used to suffering," read a letter that was addressed to Mr. Kenney and signed "Chinese victims of FSW" (the initials of the Federal Skilled Workers program).
This program was previously altered in 2008, when 19 occupations were designated as priorities for immigration. Many of those left waiting have skills that are not on the new priority list. Stricter language requirements were also introduced in 2008.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Kenney said Friday that the Conservatives had inherited an immigration system from the former Liberal government that was slow and "collapsing" due to the heavy backlog. That made it impossible to respond to Canada's rapidly changing labour market needs, Ana Curic said.
The elimination of the backlog "was a difficult but necessary decision," Ms. Curic said. "We want an immigration system that is fast and flexible, in which applicants receive decisions in a few months, instead of eight long years. We invite everyone in the current backlog to apply to come to Canada under the new system. A new system that processes applications in a few short months and not a decade is good for Canada and good for immigrants."
The protesters appear to be quite familiar with the Canadian parliamentary system. The letter presented to diplomats complained that Mr. Kenney was pushing through the changes as part of a budget bill, meaning the proposal to throw out old immigration applications would not be debated on its own merits. "The message you are sending is: 'Don't wait patiently in the immigration queue. Charter a ship, sail to Canada, seek asylum and be supported by the government while you await our decision,'" the missive warns.
"The new policy is very harsh," said Emily Xiang, an organizer of the protests. "I'm 41 and my husband is 48. [Now they say]our occupations do not meet their requirements. But I'm an accountant and my husband is an engineer, which did meet their requirements six years ago. They kept delaying, and now they say, 'You can apply again.' Such shamelessness."