09/30/2011 03:07 EDT | Updated 11/30/2011 05:12 EST

Government takes aim at immigrant waiting lists more than a million names long

OTTAWA - The lineup of people wanting to immigrate to Canada has grown steadily under the Conservatives' watch, despite government attempts to make the system more efficient.

Officials from the Immigration Department confirm that the waiting list to process immigration applications is now more than a million names long.

The long list means many years of uncertainty for some families here and abroad, and a tarnished reputation for Canada in the global competition for skilled workers.

"Huge problem," tweeted Immigration Minister Jason Kenney this week.

He has spoken frequently about the need to streamline the immigration system, but the matter has now risen toward the top of his political agenda.

The House of Commons immigration committee has just agreed to hold eight hearings on the matter, beginning next week.

And Kenney has made curtailing the backlog a priority as he undertakes a major review of the level and mix of immigrants allowed into Canada.

He is in the final stages of that review, although his final assessment is not expected soon.

However, Ottawa has cut back on the overall number of immigrants allowed into Canada this year, critics point out.

Clamping down on the number of acceptances is just lengthening the waiting list, and also taking the federal government further away from its goal of fuelling the Canadian workforce with immigrant labour, says NDP immigration critic Don Davies.

He points out that Kenney has said any growth in Canada's labour force will need to be completely supplied by immigration within five years.

"How are we going to meet that economic reality? I don't think they're responding to their own projections," Davies said in an interview.

Kenney's officials say immigration is as high in Canada now as it ever was, and 2010 was a sudden spike that skewed the numbers. Still, the minister has also indicated that a huge increase in immigration is not in the cards any time soon.

"While Canada continues to welcome historically high numbers of new immigrants, and maintains the most open and generous immigration system in the world, we have to carefully manage the large number of people who want to be Canadian," Kenney's spokeswoman, Candice Malcolm, said in an email.

That leaves finding ways to curtail applications as the only solution to getting rid of the backlog.

Indeed, Immigration Canada has taken steps in the past few years to control the waiting list.

Since 2008, the minister has had the power to limit applications in certain categories. Kenney has exercised that power for foreign skilled workers and, most recently, the investor program. Canada is not accepting any more applications in the investor program until next summer.

As a result, and also because immigration officials are being pushed to process applications faster, the rate of increase in the backlog has diminished over the years, officials say.

Plus, the wait for some categories of workers — people who have a job lined up, or professionals badly needed in Canada — are usually approved within months.

But others — especially parents and grandparents of permanent residents, and immigrants who applied before the systemic change in 2008 — can spend up to eight years before they receive word about whether they are accepted or rejected.

Now, the challenge is to prevent the list from continuing to grow.

Davies says that if increasing immigration is not an option, there are two other ways to go about it: boosting government resources to handle the paperwork, or placing stricter limits on accepting applications.

But he says the government won't entertain an increase in resources.

"They're not doing that, leaving only one policy option, which is to shut the door on the number of applications that can be made," he said. "I think they already have a pre-ordained answer. ... They're going to limit the numbers of applications for the first time in history."