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Why must Kenney mess with success?

Reason for change remains cloudy

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We are told not to read anything untoward into federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney's recent tinkering with the provincial nominee program. He is only refocusing the program to give it a more pronounced economic impact. He believes the program is still a cornerstone of the federal immigration system.

Untoward? No, that would be an overstatement. However, as the tinkering continues, it is getting harder and harder to believe there isn't something unusual going on.

This week, Kenney announced he was terminating an agreement that saw Manitoba administer about $36 million in federally funded immigrant settlement services. The province believes this made-in-Manitoba system is a key to the success of the provincial nominee program. Last year, Manitoba welcomed 16,000 PNP applicants and their families, far and away the highest total admitted to any province.

The province immediately cried foul, suggesting Ottawa's decision would ultimately ruin the mechanism Manitoba has used to grow its population and economy. "I'm a little blown away by what they're doing," Premier Greg Selinger told the Free Press.

Why would Ottawa mess around with a program that has been an unmitigated success? Opinions vary, of course, but at this stage there is no clear explanation.

Immigration settlement services have traditionally been a federal responsibility. Ottawa administers settlement services in all provinces except British Columbia and Manitoba; those provinces struck deals with a previous government to take control of settling immigrants from federal officials. Those agreements allow the two provinces to make most of the decisions on how to spend the money. In particular, which third-party groups receive funding.

Federal sources said Kenney had been under pressure by some provinces -- Ontario, in particular -- to get the same deal Manitoba and B.C. had. So rather than strike eight new agreements, Kenney decided to terminate the deals with Manitoba and B.C.

Kenney has argued this will ensure the consistency of settlement services from coast to coast. That is not a convincing argument when the feds have also frequently acknowledged Manitoba has done such a good job of selecting and settling applicants under the provincial nominee program. Other provinces, where the feds oversee settlement services, have done well, too. But is that an excuse for terminating the Manitoba deal? Seems pretty weak.

Some provincial officials believe the Conservative government took back control of settlement services because it wants to garner as much credit as possible among immigrant communities. It is true that some immigrant communities have shown a newfound affinity for the Tories, and that helped deliver a Tory majority mandate last year. At least that's the theory.

Another theory has it that this is a strategy by the federal Tories to punish Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, no friend of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, by refusing to co-operate with him on any and all intergovernmental files. In this theory, Manitoba is just the collateral damage in a scrap between Ottawa and Ontario.

Although it's hard to rule out petty politics as a motivator, neither of those two theories seems satisfying. However, it does seem as if Ottawa is going way out of its way to mess with a program that, in almost all respects, has been a success. Not in all provinces, mind you.

Last year, allegations of fraud and mismanagement were levelled against PNP initiatives in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. Kenney said he was concerned some provinces were using discretion granted to them under the program to admit applicants who had money but no language skills. This, Kenney argued, was a key element in the failure of these immigrants to live up to their economic promise.

And yet, even on this point, Kenney has been inconsistent. This week, at the same time he was terminating settlement agreements in Manitoba and B.C., he raised the bar for language proficiency for some PNP applicants. Now, all applicants in low-skill categories will have to show a minimum score on a test administered by a certified assessment agency.

Kenney said the move was made to ensure PNP applicants were able to make the maximum economic contribution when they arrive in Canada. Proficiency in English and/or French is a well-documented key to finding work.

It all seems reasonable, except no one has ever established that the provincial nominee program was failing in its primary goal, which was to fill jobs in smaller provinces that haven't attracted large numbers of immigrants. A federal review of the program, released in January, showed 97 per cent of those admitted under the program were employed within three years. There were documented problems with the PNP's entrepreneur class, but Kenney curiously did not demand increased language proficiency from this stream.

It is wrong to assume the minister is up to no good with these changes. But there is no doubt Kenney is exerting more control over a stream of immigration that saw increasing amounts of provincial influence. We should all hope he doesn't end up breaking something that, by most accounts, was never broken in the first place.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 13, 2012 A6

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