Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Provincial Tories' immigration rant a bit off the mark

Nominee Application Centre saga twisty

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Politics is not an easy gig. Events this week have surely proven that.

On Wednesday, the Manitoba Progressive Conservatives were all over the NDP government for cutting funding to immigrants.

Specifically, the Tories alleged the Selinger government terminated $195,000 in annual funding for the Nominee Application Centre, an office operated by the non-governmental Immigrant Centre Manitoba. The NAC helped those applying for permanent residency negotiate the Provincial Nominee Program.

Shame, NDP government.

The province did not respond immediately to the news release, which quoted immigration critic Bonnie Mitchelson and was tweeted with machine-like efficiency by MLA Myrna Driedger, acknowledged in the halls of the Manitoba legislature as the quickest tweeter on the Prairies. However, inquiries to NDP cabinet communications unearthed some interesting background.

Yes, the province funded the NAC, and it is scheduled to end March 31. However, the province said the money was actually federal and flowed through provincial coffers as part of an agreement that allowed Manitoba to administer federally funded immigration services. Ottawa terminated that agreement, effective April 1, and it has decided not to continue supporting the NAC.

Uh-huh. If you're wondering who's doing what to whom, you're not alone. What we know is that in the search for a quick hit on the government, Opposition critics waded into a highly volatile, highly confusing story of shared jurisdiction and funding.

In review, last spring, Ottawa terminated a 2003 agreement that allowed the province to deliver federally funded immigrant settlement services. The Manitoba model, as it has been called, was the envy of other provinces. It is widely believed to be the reason Manitoba has recruited and retained historic numbers of immigrants, most of whom enter under the Provincial Nominee Program (PNP).

However, last spring, after months of negotiation to extend the agreement, federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said he was winding it up. Concerns were raised about how the program was being administered, although they were never adequately defined. Federal officials intimated that Ottawa ended the Manitoba agreement because it was under pressure by other provinces that wanted the same control, which Kenney was unwilling to give. Cynics have suggested, with some evidence, that federal Tories were simply tired of the Manitoba NDP taking political credit for a federally funded program.

The transition from provincial to federal control is ongoing. To date, no one is entirely sure what a new federally administered program will look like, only that it will not include funding for the NAC.

So which level of government gets to wear the black hat in this story? It depends on your political perspective.

According to Manitoba Tories, notwithstanding Ottawa's decision to take over settlement services, the NDP could have continued funding the NAC. The NDP countered with a claim that the cheque may have been provincial, but the money was all federal. If Ottawa wanted the NAC to continue, it could have made that happen.

Sheesh.

The good news, if there is any, is the services provided by the NAC will still be provided through a provincial office completely run on provincial money. The bad news is the NAC, which from all reports was doing a good job, has become a political football in a nasty little scrum between Ottawa and the province.

Tory critics were clearly not operating with a clear idea of how complex this story is, and in the process they have put themselves on shaky ground. Local Tories support federal control of settlement services and shouldn't have done anything that might make Ottawa look like Grinches. Furthermore, Ottawa could have insisted no specific service was lost in the transition to federal oversight. It did not, and one wonders what other parts of a successful Manitoba settlement service array will be cut.

The NDP is not blameless in this story. The province claimed it was cheaper to provide the services in-house than backfilling federal funding to the NAC. If that was the case, why contract it out in the first place? Typically, government finds non-governmental partners for service delivery because it's better for recipients, more cost-effective, or both. If this was a better service-delivery model, why not save it? Perhaps the province allowed the NAC to die so it could pin it on Ottawa.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 7, 2013 A4

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