Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney says the wait list at the end of 2012 was down to 616,271 from more than a million the year before.
Kenney says there would have been more than two million people stuck in the queue by 2015 had the government not taken steps to deal with the problem.
Those measures include a moratorium on applications from immigrant investors and entrepreneurs, as well as parents and grandparents of immigrants.
However, the government plans to resume accepting a set number of applications under the family reunification program early next year, Kenney said.
"We will reopen that program for a limited number of new applications based on the new criteria in January of 2014 — I stress a limited number of new applications, to avoid an explosion of the backlog again," Kenney said Tuesday in Mississauga, Ont.
Next month, the federal government will also launch a new program aimed at luring start-up companies and entrepreneurs to Canada.
The government will grant a maximum of 2,750 visas a year for each of the five years of the pilot program. The program replaces two older immigration programs aimed at would-be business owners, which were put on hold after the government decided they weren't luring enough real business to Canada.
A big part of the backlog reduction came after the Conservative government's 2012 budget eliminated some 280,000 applications made before February 2008 by skilled workers and their dependents. However, the move is now being challenged in court.
Meanwhile, Kenney dismissed suggestions that simply accepting more immigrants would reduce the backlog.
He says doing so would still leave more than a million people in the queue by 2015.
"Increasing the immigration targets, increasing the number of people admitted, would not have been a solution to the large and growing backlogs and wait times," Kenney said.
"In fact, they would have continued to deteriorate without our government bringing in the action plan for faster immigration and controls on new applications."
The average time it takes for applications to be processed has also fallen, Kenney said.
"Behind every one of those numbers lies a human life, someone who has the hope and expectation of coming to Canada," Kenney said.
"We were doing wrong by them and wrong for Canada by making people wait for eight or nine years, and it would be even more wrong to force them to wait for 15 or 18 years, which is where we were headed in many of our immigration programs."
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