Canada was the first country in the world to develop a selection system based on points. The original points system, introduced in 1967, was linked closely to labour market demand and an immigrant's potential to meet that demand.
The system worked not only because it was simple, but also because the number of people around the world applying at the time roughly equalled Canada's ability to process cases. The system was a success because it selected the immigrants Canada needed and because a point could be awarded for every year of formal education (to a maximum of 20). And it was not just PhDs, but also apprenticed tradesmen, who got credit for their training.
As the number of applications started to outstrip the capacity to process them, the points system and the pass mark were adjusted in an attempt to control volume. By 1986, education was only accorded a maximum of 12 points and those in the skilled trades could no longer receive points for their years of apprenticeship whereas PhDs could still get sufficient points to pass from other factors.
However, successive immigration acts provided that every application received had to be assessed. Therefore, the number of applications continued to outstrip Canada's processing capacity. By 2008, Citizenship and Immigration Canada faced a backlog of over 600,000 cases and the capacity to process about 200,000 per year. Furthermore, valuable resources were being used to manage the backlog, respond to complaints about the backlog and refuse cases that ought never to have been considered for processing in the first place.
So, without any other tool to say "no" other than the points system (and occasional refusals on the grounds of criminality, security or health) the points system became a barbed-wire fence. Applicants who could not cross it by themselves hired lawyers and consultants to vault them over the fence, dig tunnels under the fence or cut the wire to get them through. This is not the way the selection system started, but this is what it has become in practice. In addition, the system has become so litigious that, incredibly, two-thirds of the casework of the Federal Court is related to immigration and refugees.
The latest selection system, introduced in 2002, is heavily weighted toward formal education and thorough knowledge of one of our official languages. Without scoring highly in these areas, it is very hard to pass the test. As a result, the points system excludes many people we need in Canada because it is designed to limit those who pass rather than select those we need.
However, Canada's immigration program no longer needs the points system to be a gatekeeper. Thanks to the new legislation, the points system no longer has to do double duty as a deterrent. The minister can now set annual limits and this frees immigration officers to choose the immigrants Canada needs.
However, to do so, immigration officers need a new tool. The current points system still creates too many roadblocks for the workers and their families we want to attract. The points system needs to be freed to do its real job -- choose people whose skills Canada needs and who will contribute to making Canada a better place. It needs to be redesigned so that the workers we need, such as apprenticed trades, will not be rejected.
These changes are particularly important for Western Canada, given the acute labour shortages that have been bedevilling the four western provinces. Notwithstanding the current economic slowdown, these shortages are likely to become chronic unless aggressive steps are taken so that Canada's immigration program can be used effectively to help alleviate these pressures.
Canada was the world leader in immigrant selection innovation in the 1960s and '70s but it lost its position due to the lack of means, other than the points system, to control the numbers of people applying to come to Canada. The new amendments to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act give Canada the opportunity to reassume its leading role in immigrant selection by adopting a points system to meet today's needs and, in doing so, bring to Canada the skilled immigrants Canada needs in the 21st century.
Robert Vineberg is a senior fellow with the Canada West Foundation.
-- Troy Media Corporation