Feds won’t fight ‘sweetheart’ Quebec immigration program despite B.C. fallout
OTTAWA — The Trudeau government says it has no interest in challenging Quebec’s “sweetheart” immigration system, even though West Coast critics say two components of that province’s system effectively hurt B.C.
“I’m quite happy with the relationship that we currently enjoy with Quebec,” Immigration Minister John McCallum said in an interview after confirming that he won’t pursue changes.
Jason Kenney, considered a leading challenger for the Conservative Party leadership if he remains in federal politics, fumed when he was immigration minister about “fraud” in Quebec’s Immigrant Investor program.
That program lets wealthy foreigners effectively buy permanent residence status in Canada, but research has indicated that most settle outside Quebec and especially in B.C.
As a result, Quebec gets the financial benefits from the cash-for-visa program while, say critics, B.C. has to deal with both the positives and negatives associated with the arrival of wealthy migrants.
Benefits for B.C. include the stimulation of the economy with luxury purchases. But new arrivals — including the spouses and children of “astronauts” who work and pay taxes overseas — also use public education and health care services, plus they play a role in driving up real estate prices.
The federal government shut down its own investor program in 2014 due to public criticism and the widespread perception that the cost outweighed the benefits.
Kenney, who also complained about a “sweetheart” 1991 deal that gave Quebec a hugely disproportionate share of federal immigrant settlement dollars, was never able to convince cabinet colleagues and the bureaucracy to take on Quebec.
McCallum said he also has no interest in shutting down the investor program or taking steps that would require Quebec to keep rich immigrants in the province longer.
“It’s not something we can control even if we wanted to, because once you are a permanent resident the Constitution allows you to live wherever you want to live in Canada.”
He also said he will not try to renegotiate the 1991 Canada-Quebec immigration accord, agreed to at a time when the sovereignty movement was at its strongest.
It granted Quebec an annual grant starting at $75 million a year in immigrant and refugee resettlement money.
That $75 million would be worth about $117 million in today’s dollars. However, the generous escalator clause included in the 1991 deal has resulted in Quebec getting almost triple that post-inflation amount, or $345.1 million, in the 2015-16 fiscal year.
The formula, based on past immigrant intake as well as Canada’s economic growth figures, results in steady and sometimes dramatic increases.
The federal government was unable to provide comparative figures Thursday on how much it spends in provinces outside Quebec for immigration resettlement. Prior to the former government’s decision to take over control of that work in 2012, the B.C. government was getting roughly $3,000 from Ottawa for each permanent resident arriving on an annual basis.
That compares with the $6,600-a-head subsidy going to Quebec.
Chris Friesen, director of settlement services for Immigrant Services Society of B.C., said Thursday he believes less money has been coming to the West Coast since 2012.
That was because of changes made under the previous government to funnel more money to overseas pre-arrival settlement programs.
Friesen also noted that B.C. settlement agencies took a hefty cut in federal transfers this year based on a federal formula for the rest of Canada that allocates funds based on past immigration trends.
He said his organization has been pressing the Trudeau government to come up with a new formula that takes into account the movement of immigrants after they settle in a particular province.
“We do need more equitable access to resources to ensure social cohesion and economic integration” for newcomers.
That, Friesen said, would help reduce waiting lists for language and employment services in Metro Vancouver, where the influx of Syrian refugees has created considerable strain on service providers.
A Vancouver immigration lawyer says it should be no surprise that the Liberals would not consider challenging the status quo in Quebec, given that this was something too sensitive even for Stephen Harper’s Tories.
Richard Kurland noted that the B.C. government has never publicly complained about Quebec immigration policies.
“The feds won’t risk a loss of political capital in the Quebec region when it is only B.C. being ‘hurt’ and B.C. does not ask them to fix it,” Kurland said in an e-mail exchange.
“There is no appetite politically in Victoria to go near any of this.”
The same reluctance applies to the 1991 accord, say critics. The accord’s terms say Quebec must agree to any changes, though Kenney suggested when he was minister that Ottawa might have the authority to structure a fairer agreement.
But political realities — Quebec governments have always jealously guarded their control over immigration — stand in the way.
“It’s a sweetheart deal, and don’t hold your breath that it will ever change,” said Friesen.