OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he's pushing Canada's immigration system to soften its approach to processing visa applications and put less focus on the risk of visitors overstaying their short-term visas.
"We're also trying to do a better job around temporary visas," Trudeau said Friday.
"The system — I'll be honest — is still based around, 'Prove to me that you won't stay if you come,' right?" he said, arguing that it is easier for applicants to "convince" immigration officials to grant them visas if they have "a good job and a home and a house and a good status back home."
On the other hand, people who are strongly motivated to be in Canada for family reasons could be seen by officials as more likely to overstay, he suggested: "If your mom talks about how much she loves you and just wants to be there (in Canada), and you're there all alone, that's scary."
Trudeau made the remarks Friday during an hour-long meeting with about 25 Algonquin College nursing students in Ottawa. Many of them told him they are international students, and a handful mentioned visa issues.
During a question-and-answer session, one international student recounted being hospitalized for seven months and feeling isolated. She told the prime minister her mother had tried twice to get a visa to come visit her, but both applications were rejected.
Trudeau responded that it is vital for Canadians to have faith in the integrity of their immigration system. But he also suggested that he had asked Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada to take a less defensive posture when issuing visas.
"We have to stop saying 'Well, it would be a bad people, a bad thing, if these people were to choose to stay,'" Trudeau said. "Our immigration minister, Sean Fraser, is working very, very hard on trying to shift the way we look at immigration and make sure that we're bringing people in."
The prime minister told the student that the Immigration Department made the wrong call in deciding not to admit her mother.
"It would seem unfair to Canadians and to all sorts of people if there was a back door. These are all the things we're trying to balance," Trudeau said. "But I absolutely hear you. Your mom should have been able to come and see you."
Trudeau added that the federal immigration system is challenged by Canada's need to fill labour gaps and by numerous crises abroad that are causing people to flee their homes.
Trudeau also said Ottawa has to do a better job helping immigrants thrive. Otherwise, he said, Canadians' warm feelings toward immigration could chill.
"An anti-immigration party would have a hard time succeeding in Canada, because so many Canadians understand how important that is," Trudeau said. "We need to protect the fact that Canadians are pro-immigration."
For example, he said there must be enough housing stock for newcomer families to establish themselves without breeding resentment among the Canadian-born population. But he suggested immigration could also help solve that problem.
"There's a labour shortage in the construction industry and building houses. So as we bring in more people who can build houses, we will solve some of the housing shortage," said Trudeau.
"There are solutions in this. Part of it is shifting the attitudes. Part of it is also just improving our ability to process (applications) using proper digital means and computer means."
Fraser's office confirmed that work is underway to look at how Ottawa issues visas for relatives of people already in Canada.
“Reuniting families is a pillar of Canada’s immigration system," the minister's spokeswoman, Bahoz Dara Aziz, said in a statement. "We continue to be guided by principles of fairness and compassion, and work to explore all avenues possible in bringing people together with their loved ones."
Canada's visa denials and processing delays have made global headlines in the past year, with citizens of developing countries finding themselves unable to attend global conferences hosted in Canadian cities.
This week, the International Studies Association went public with its struggles to get visas for hundreds of people set to attend a Montreal conference next month.
Despite presenting plane tickets, income data and evidence of funding they received to attend the conference, many attendees, including panelists, have been denied on the grounds that they can't demonstrate a likelihood of returning home when the event is over.
The issues follow an uproar last year over the denial of visas for multiple African delegates to the International AIDS Conference, also held in Montreal, which had some accusing Canada of racism.
Data updated Tuesday show that visa applications take an average of 217 days to process for people based in Britain. It's 212 days for people in France.
While citizens of those countries don't need visitor visas to come to Canada, academics from many developing countries who are based in Paris or London do need a visa to attend a conference Canada.
The Immigration Department did not respond to the concerns until after The Canadian Press published an article Wednesday.
"IRCC works collaboratively with organizers of international events taking place in Canada to help co-ordinate processing of temporary resident visa applications for delegates or participants to Canada," spokesman Jeffrey MacDonald said in an email.
"We are committed to the fair and non-discriminatory application of immigration procedures. We take this responsibility seriously, and officers are trained to assess applications equally against the same criteria."
The department said the complexity and accuracy of information in a visa application can influence how quickly IRCC processes it, in addition to the staffing and resources of offices that handle the requests.
But the department also noted that the processing times it posts online are often not "reflective of reality."
That's because the estimate is based on how long it took officials to process 80 per cent of applications in the previous six to eight weeks. Those include long-backlogged cases.
"Processing times can be skewed by outliers, in particular applications from our older inventory that were previously on hold for a long period of time and are now being processed," MacDonald wrote.
"Once this backlog of applications is cleared, we will start to see processing times more reflective of reality."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 11, 2023.
Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press