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Changes to immigration policy criticized
Immigrants new to Nanaimo looking for help with work permits, visas and other bureaucratic needs will no longer have access to personal assistance here as of Friday (June 1).
Citizenship and Immigration Canada offices in Nanaimo, Kelowna and Victoria will close permanently, leaving immigrants with only a toll-free line or e-mail to Vancouver or Ottawa to rely upon for technical questions relating to their paperwork.
That will take away much of the support immigrants rely on to complete important documents, said Hilde Schlosar, executive director of the Central Vancouver Island Multicultural Society. And with English as a second language for many using the service, the new system will become a source of delays and frustration.
"No immigrants, no international students, no visa holder or applicant can go in and see a real person here anymore," said Schlosar. "It also means that citizenship ceremonies, which are organized out of Victoria, now, for the whole province, have to be organized out of Vancouver."
Schlosar said that immigrants already tested for their citizenships and waiting to obtain Canadian citizenship would normally attend their citizenship ceremony around now, but the changes mean they will have to wait even longer.
"It's hard to see how this is all going to be accomplished out of the Vancouver office for the entire province," she said.
An estimated 400-500 immigrants arrive in Nanaimo annually. There are typically four citizenship ceremonies a year, with an estimated 250 of people from around the globe earning their Canadian citizenships here.
Bruce Condie, director of international marketing and business at Vancouver Island University, said many of the school's 1,600 international students relied on the Nanaimo immigration office.
"I don't think it will affect our recruitment efforts at the outset, but recruitment is largely word of mouth and if potential students hear it's difficult to get these things done, it may affect us down the road," said Condie. "We're in competition with other universities in Canada and other countries, for that matter, and any little piece that makes us less competitive hurts our ability to attract students to the area."
Condie added that Ottawa is sending a contradictory message from that of the province when it comes to immigration. A key pillar of the provincial economic development strategy is to attract foreign students and workers, especially from Asia, to help develop economic links to emerging foreign markets.
"It seems counterproductive, doesn't it?" he said. "International students have a huge impact on the economy. It's in the billions of dollars."
Schlosar added that the multicultural society often liaised with the Citizenship and Immigration Canada office to help advise clients, but that the society isn't able to provide immigrants with the detailed information required to fill out applications.
"We can only advise and guide our clients, but when it comes down to really going over the paperwork to make sure it's correct, these people need an experienced CIC officer, some of whom have been in Nanaimo for 30 years. Our fear is without these officers, there are going to be delays and backlogs, and we're going to lose important local knowledge."
Both Schlosar and Condie agreed a phone service will present challenges for people who use English as a second language.
"Communication is 70 per cent body language," said Condie.
The changes were part of the federal budget, Bill C-38, which holds other challenges for immigrants, including a decision to cut health care access for refugees.
It will also end the Canada-B.C. Immigration Agreement, a model previously envied by the rest of the country by giving the province the ability to develop and deliver immigrant settlement and integration programming based on unique provincial dynamics.
Instead of a federal-provincial agreement, the federal government is creating a Western Canada region that will include B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and the Yukon and Northwest territories into one region, with headquarters in Calgary.
The announcement took the B.C. government and service providers by surprise.
"B.C. is slightly surpassing other other provinces in the range and quality of immigrant services, so we aren't clear what CIC wants to achieve here," said Lynn Moran, executive director of The Affiliation of Multicultural Societies and Service Agencies, adding that B.C. has reached standards of excellence through strong connections between government, communities, service providers and businesses.
B.C. is by far the largest recipient of immigrants of any of the provinces or territories within the new CIC 'super-region', and receives the third highest number of immigrants behind Ontario and Quebec.
The agreement will officially end March 2014.
Brenda Lohrenz, executive director of English Language Services for Adults, said B.C. stands to lose in the shift to a more regional model.
"Continued immigration to B.C. and continued effectiveness in ensuring immigrants connect with our communities and labour markets, particularly through language training, are key to our economic and social future," said Lohrenz.
Schlosar said she is worried that the changes will result in added pressures on services like the Central Vancouver Island Multicultural Society and other agencies on the front lines helping immigrants through their transitions to life in Canada.
"Somebody has to pick up the pieces and it's usually the non-profits," said Schlosar. "It's local community services that have to somehow pick up the services that people need."