2020: The Year That Was, Perspectives and Prospects

December 22nd, 2020

The end of 2020 quickly approaches. This year has been unlike any other. The coronavirus has upended the best-laid plans and brought with it unexpected and unprecedented challenge, upheaval, and suffering to Canadians and those wishing to become them. But the same circumstances have also brought out remarkable acts of creativity, compassion, and kindness. I want to take this opportunity to reflect on these events, and what they may tell us about the year to come.

The year 2020 began with Canada’s economy thriving, thanks to immigration. Coronavirus had already broken out in parts of the world but it was not yet considered a pandemic. The Government of Canada, in line with international organizations such as the WHO and other countries, implemented, beginning in late January, a series of warning and monitoring protocols, and extended and intensified these measures through February. Already, a relatively small but noticeable drop in immigration to Canada was occurring. However, life went on more or less apace.

Then came March. On March 4, the federal government announced the creation of a new, cabinet-based COVID-19 Response Committee, with Chrystia Freeland, the powerful Deputy Prime Minister, as chair. One week later, on March 11, the federal government announced a billion-dollar rescue, research, and relief package to alleviate the consequences of the virus and also find therapeutics. The federal government had also released its 2020-2022 Immigration Levels Plan, calling for 341,000 newcomers in 2020. Later that week and throughout March, the impact virus reached crisis levels across Canada, as it already had across much of the world. In Quebec for example, public gatherings, restaurants, daycares, schools, and non-essential businesses, were all ordered to close. Life as we knew it changed rapidly and radically.

Canada was also forced to extensively alter its border, travel, and immigration policies. On March 16, Canada announced that it was restricting entry to most people who were not Canadian citizens or permanent residents, and their close relatives. There were exceptions for airline staff, and those engaged in cross-border deliveries. Later that week, most international travel was restricted to only four Canadian airports: Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, and Montreal. On March 20, Canada and the United States agreed to restrict most travel between their two countries. On March 26, federal minister of health, Patty Hajdu, invoked the Quarantine Act, requiring incoming travellers to self-isolate for 14 days upon arrival. Certain essential workers were exempt from the quarantine requirement, but those who broke the new rules could face a fine or even imprisonment.

Obviously, these events had a dramatic and catastrophic impact on all aspects of Canadian life. Thousands of businesses closed, some permanently. Millions of workers saw their hours reduced or jobs eliminated altogether. Virtually all Canadians saw their day-to-day lives change tremendously. And of course, thousands got infected with the virus. While most people had light or no symptoms and recovered without issue, tragically, some were infected grievously and even died.

Likewise, the damage to Canada’s immigration flows was enormous. In April, Canada only welcomed some 4,000 new immigrants, which may be its lowest monthly total since the Second World War.

We have also seen acts of generosity, courage, and love. Many asylum-seekers awaiting determinations on their status began caring for the vulnerable and sick, particularly in hospitals and care homes. This has been the case especially in Quebec, which is arguably the province worst-hit by the virus. A movement arose in the province to grant permanent status to the so-called “guardian angels” who have cared for others, often at risk to themselves. In August, the Government of Quebec announced it would establish a program to grant permanent residence to people who met certain conditions and who had provided healthcare to Quebeckers between March and August 2020. The federal government then adopted this idea, extending a modified version to cover such individuals in provinces outside of Quebec.

Also, in March, Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) announced a major move to increase certainty and reduce anxieties of the hundreds of thousands of international students pursuing education at Canadian universities and colleges. Persons who graduate such programs may be eligible for a Post-Graduation Work Permit (PGWP) if they apply within 180 days of graduation from their program of eight months or more. Normally, IRCC rules demand that the applicant in question must have pursued all of their studies in person, on-campus. However, doing so became difficult, and in some cases, altogether impossible, for many students, beginning in March. Consequently, IRCC modified its rules to allow students to pursue their post-secondary studies online, and still be eligible for the PGWP, as long as they completed at least half of their studies in person. This rule has since been extended to April 2021.

This policy change is compassionate, but it is also smart. International students generally possess the youth, education and language abilities all desirable in immigrants to Canada. Indeed, in 2019, 58,000 of the 341,000 new immigrants welcomed by Canada were former international students. Every province of Canada, including Quebec, boasts at least one immigration stream dedicated to people who recently graduated from a post-secondary institution in the province.

Recognizing the central role of the family to so many of us, Canada has also taken steps to allow people to be with their loved ones during the pandemic. Immediate family of Canadians can enter Canada without prior written authorization, as long as such family pass inspection at the point of entry. Other, extended family members (such as siblings and grandparents) of a Canadian can also come to Canada if they apply beforehand and obtain permission. This also applies to individuals in a long-term, exclusive dating relationship.

Likewise, IRCC has taken measures to ensure the security and stability of temporary foreign workers who help the country to function. Changes to one’s work permit related to COVID19 are receiving expedited processing. The duration of many LMIA’s (Labour Market Impact Assessments, which are often required for a work permit) has been increased.

Everyone agrees that the Canadian economy has faced unprecedented challenges this year. Rather than using this difficulty to stir up resentment against newcomers, the federal government has decided that the best way to repair and expand Canada’s economy is to increase our projected intake of immigrants over the next few years, given the enormous positive impact of immigration on Canada’s growth.

On October 30, Marco Mendicino, the immigration minister, presented the government’s Immigration Levels Plan for the next years 2021-2023. This plan took the previously expected immigration intake numbers for the years 2021 and 2022 and dramatically increased the figures, from 351,000 to 401,000 and from 361,000 to 411,000 respectively. The new plan also announced the targeted level for 2023: 411,000 new permanent residents. Added together, these numbers mean that Canada now plans to welcome over 1.2 million new permanent immigrants over the next three years.

The Canadian openness for immigration, and belief it is an essential part of the country realizing its full potential, stands in marked contrast to the insular and anti-immigration rhetoric and policy pervasive in many other countries.

Provincial Nominee Programs, an integral and rapidly growing aspect of economic immigration to Canada, continued to extend invitations for permanent residence. In this month alone, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia have each issued invitations for permanent residence. These provinces invited several hundred candidates combined.

Meanwhile, Express Entry (EE), has already had its biggest year ever. IRCC has issued over 100,000 invitations in a year for the first time since Express Entry’s launch in 2015. The complex and varied structure of EE allows IRCC to respond to the challenges of the coronavirus. For example, by limiting many of EE draws this year to the Canada Experience Class, IRCC has been able to focus on individuals who are very likely to already be physically present in Canada. This said, IRCC has also opened draws to individuals in the Federal Skilled Worker and Federal Skilled Trades classes.

Canadian immigration policy this year has been like Canada itself, battered and challenged in extraordinary ways but also tenacious and resilient and poised to reach even greater heights once we get through the pandemic.

We can draw comfort, as I do, from the countless acts of compassion and kindness that have illuminated the darkness of disease and dislocation. I think of the Nanji family from Uganda. They were expelled from Uganda when the dictator Idi Amin banished all people of South Asian origin from the country in 1972. They had three months to uproot, but they were able to find a haven, a home, and ultimately spectacular business success in Canada. They pledged to one day repay their adopted country for her kindness and hospitality. The Nanji family has done just that, already donating millions to various health causes. When the coronavirus hit, the family again stepped up to the plate and donated $1.6 million to hospitals fighting the disease. They sent $100,000 to sixteen different institutions. A family who came as refugees, climbed the ladder of economic success, and in the end, enriched their new home. Could there be a more quintessentially Canadian immigration story?

Wherever you are, and whichever holidays you celebrate, I wish you and yours good health, a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. May 2021 bring a return to normalcy, but also retain the kindness and creativity we have seen this past year.

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