03/29/2012 04:06 EDT | Updated 05/29/2012 05:12 EDT

Feds move to eliminate immigration backlog by returning applications

OTTAWA - Almost 300,000 people who applied before 2008 to come to Canada are being told they'll need to try again.

Their applications are being returned and $130 million worth of fees being refunded as the government seeks to eliminate a backlog they say has been standing in the way of major reform to the immigration system.

"Canada risks losing the global talent competition for the world's best and brightest as potential immigrants choose to take their skills to other counties with more responsive immigration systems rather than remain in the queue to have their applications process in Canada," Thursday's budget said.

Changes made to the federal skilled workers programs by Immigration Minister Jason Kenney since 2008 have seen a greater focus on bringing in workers with specific skills to fill labour shortages.

But many of those who applied before that date have seen their applications languish in the system. They'll now be told they can either reapply under the new rules or try their luck via the provincial nominee programs.

At the same time, the government will seek to find a balance between bringing immigrants to Canada to fill open jobs and making sure regions with high unemployment look to Canadians first.

One way they'll attempt to do that is to build a system that would restrict employers from being able to bring in temporary foreign workers if there is local labour available.

The priority the government places on reforming the immigration system is evident in the fact the department's budget is one of only five seeing less than six per cent shaved from their budget this year.

Financial documents filed by the department earlier this year suggest modernizing the immigration system will actually cost at least $25 million.

Other changes planned by the government include reforming the points system under which immigrants now qualify to come to Canada.

The government wants to place more emphasis on young immigrants who are fluent in English or French and whose educational credentials are best suited to getting them jobs.

Programs designed to attract investors and entrepreneurs are also being changed; the current investor class program has come under scrutiny for allowing people to essentially buy their way into Canada without a long-term benefit to the Canadian economy.

They government also hopes to beef up the current provincial nominee system, which gives the provinces the ability to cherry-pick the people they need to meet their own needs.

Currently, provinces are given the ability to mine the existing backlog of applications submitted since 2008 in order to identify workers.

Going forward, the government hopes to set up a pooled system.

"In short, the government is committed to strengthening the immigration system to make it truly proactive, targeted, fast and efficient in a way that will sustain Canada's economic growth and deliver prosperity for the future."

The Opposition has already raised some concerns about the reforms, saying that there needs to be a more holistic approach to the issue that takes into account immigrants long-term goals to bring over their families.

Earlier this year, the government froze applications for parents and grandparents, instead instituting a "super visa" that would allow them multiple entries to Canada over 10 years.

The government started public consultations on that program last week.