Ontario’s immigration minister wants more control over economic class selection

Kareem El-Assal, Shelby Thevenot
Published: July 27, 2022

Ontario's immigration minister, Monte McNaughton wants the province to get twice as many immigrants through the Provincial Nominee Program (PNP) and have more authority over economic immigration.

"As it stands, over 211,000 immigrants are coming to Ontario this year. Ontario chooses less than 5% of those immigrants," McNaughton said in an exclusive interview with CIC News yesterday. "In comparison, Quebec is selecting about 50,000 this year, British Columbia can choose 11,000, Nova Scotia's choosing 50% of their immigrants. We're really at a disadvantage that's why I want a new deal from Ottawa when it comes to immigration."

McNaughton also said that while are an estimated 211,000 newcomers coming to Ontario this year and roughly 378,000 vacant jobs are going unfilled, the province is only allowed to nominate 9,750 of them under the Ontario Immigrant Nominee Program (OINP) for Canadian permanent residence.

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"When I travelled Ontario, it wasn't election signs that I was seeing but it was help wanted signs in small business across our province," McNaughton said, alluding to the recent provincial elections that saw his Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario win a second consecutive majority government. "It's important the federal government works with us to really be laser-focused on filling labour shortages."

The Canada-Ontario Immigration Agreement (COIA) expires in the fall. This agreement is the framework for Ontario's relationship with the government on immigration. In Canada, immigration is a shared jurisdiction with the federal and provincial and territorial governments. The federal government has the final say on who gets to immigrate to Canada, but the provinces and territories can create selection criteria for their own immigration programs. Since the current COIA is expiring, Ontario has the opportunity to negotiate changes to its immigration relationship with the federal government.

McNaughton says negotiations have already begun. Emphasizing his excellent working relationship with his federal counterpart, McNaughton said he has been in contact with Canada's Immigration Minister Sean Fraser on a weekly and sometimes daily basis.

Ontario making two requests to the federal government

Stressing that Ontario is supportive of federal efforts to reunite families and resettle refugees, McNaughton said he is making two key requests with the federal government: to see Ontario's PNP allocation double to 18,000, and to have more autonomy over economic immigration.

"What we want is more say in immigrants that are coming here to fill the jobs that are going unfilled from an economic standpoint," McNaughton said. "The current approach isn’t working...We need more economic immigrants. It's the next step in filling labour shortages."

Ontario has already taken steps to improve credential recognition for immigrant workers, such as eliminating the need for Canadian experience to get licenced in a number of regulated occupations. However, the minister says more can be done to improve economic immigration to the province.

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"I know there's a number of areas we're looking at such as improving the temporary foreign worker program and having more flexibility and say on how these spots are allocated," McNaughton said.

McNaughton told CIC News he is heading to New Brunswick today where the Forum of Ministers Responsible for Immigration is meeting with the federal government this week to discuss immigration needs at the provincial and territorial levels. The two levels of government have been meeting annually since 2003 to shape Canadian immigration policy.

Ontario’s unique immigration situation

Ontario has one of Canada’s more unique immigration contexts. It is by far Canada’s largest province in terms of population, so it comes as no surprise that it welcomes the most number of immigrants destined to Canada.

However, even though Ontario represents some 40% of Canada’s population, it welcomed some 45% of the country’s immigrants prior to the pandemic. Last year, it welcomed nearly half of the over 405,000 new immigrants who landed in Canada. This was a function of IRCC transitioning more temporary residents to permanent residence via Express Entry, among other measures, to achieve its Immigration Levels Plan goal of landing over 400,000 new permanent residents. Ontario was able to benefit from IRCC’s policy shift due to its large population of international students and temporary foreign workers.

Ontario is the leading recipient of Canada’s immigrants due to its large economy, diaspora communities, and significant immigrant settlement services. To help promote a more equitable share of immigration across Canada, IRCC introduced the PNP in 1998 to provide smaller provinces and territories with a greater say in economic class immigration selection.

Larger provinces such as Ontario, British Columbia, and Alberta also operate the PNP to address specific labour force needs in their jurisdictions. But the PNP tends to represent a smaller share of their overall immigration levels since these three provinces also benefit from federal economic class arrivals.

In the case of Ontario in particular, its PNP arrivals are dwarfed by not only federal economic class arrivals, but also by family and refugee class arrivals, which are also controlled by the federal government.

Indeed, prior to the pandemic, Ontario was the only province or territory that welcomed more family and refugee class immigrants than economic class ones. The province has long argued that this makes it difficult to support economic development at a time of more baby boomers retiring. This argument is becoming even more urgent as the province experiences the significant labour shortages that are also being felt across Canada.

On the other side, the federal government must deal with the challenging objective of seeking to balance national immigration goals. Given that Ontario is already the preferred destination for most federally-selected economic class immigrants, increasing its OINP allocation could come at the expense of IRCC’s goal to promote immigration to the rest of Canada’s provinces and territories. However, IRCC could seek a compromise by increasing the OINP allocation while also increasing the PNP allocations of other provinces and territories that express this desire. A PNP allocation increase across the board could minimize the potential for a higher OINP allocation impairing the ability of other jurisdictions to also attract newcomers.

Looking ahead, the PNP is set to comprise a greater volume of newcomers to Canada. Under the Immigration Levels Plan 2022-2024, which was announced this February, Canada is seeking to welcome some 83,500 immigrants through the PNP this year, and the target will rise to 93,000 by 2024. These targets represent the highest in Canadian history, and to put them into perspective, Canada welcomed just 400 immigrants in the PNP’s first full calendar year of operations in 1999.

The targets could rise further still. Minister Fraser is required to table Canada’s Immigration Levels Plan 2023-2025 by November 1. While the minister has remained coy on what the new targets could entail, he told CIC News in a recent interview he is supportive of even higher immigration levels and would adjust targets based on the feedback he hears from communities across Canada.

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