Photo by Maximus Studio on Flickr. Edited by Inroads Journal.

In Part 1 of this examination of the trends in the Canadian immigration system How Immigration Really Works in Canada, published in the Winter/Spring 2021 issue of Inroads, I showed that, aside from the family reunification and public refugee programs, over half of the people who receive their permanent residence in the economic category are already in Canada on temporary permits. Close to half of those are international students either completing a degree or working in Canada after having completed a postsecondary degree or diploma at a Canadian institution. The rest have other types of temporary work permits.

This trend was reinforced in February of this year when the federal government announced that it was inviting more than 27,000 people to apply for permanent residence, of whom over 90 per cent were already in Canada, essentially eliminating the points selection grid altogether.1 In April came announcement of a temporary policy to grant permanent status to 90,000 “temporary workers and international graduates who are already in Canada and who possess the skills and experience we need to fight the pandemic and accelerate our economic recovery.”2 These two announcements do not include Quebec because of the special Canada-Quebec Agreement which dates back to 1990. However, for the last few years, Quebec has also essentially been selecting people already working and living in the province.

Here I look at the various immigration programs designed to allow temporary workers to apply for permanent residence. I offer an overview of the two main temporary work permit programs,3 and then raise some issues related to this trend. Finally, I underline the work still to be done to ensure that the both the people who arrive here and the welcoming society benefit from this process.

A multitude of transition programs to permanent residence

An inventory of the various federal and provincial permanent economic immigration programs in Canada reveals close to 60 different streams and pathways. Each has its own conditions based on stype of occupation and skill level,4 level of education, source of education (Canadian or foreign), level of language skills, number of years of work experience in Canada or outside Canada, type of professional or skills training, etc. Some of the criteria are in constant flux as labour market requirements evolve. Each province has its own programs, so the criteria will differ depending on where one wants to settle. Some of the provincial programs include a provincial points system, while others simply list specific conditions.

For immigration purposes, jobs are grouped through the National Occupational Classification system, which describes each job according to skill type and level. Thus, skill type 0 consists of management jobs, while skill levels A through D group occupations that usually require a degree from a university (A), technical jobs and skilled trades that usually require a college diploma or apprenticeship (B), intermediate jobs that usually require high school or job-specific training (C) and jobs that provide on-the-job training (D). Although several provinces have programs geared toward C-level skills, these target very specific occupations. The rest require occupations at the 0, A or B level – college or higher.

Many programs in English Canada require spoken and written English or French at a beginner’s level. Quebec, for its Programme d’Expérience Québécoise, requires intermediate-level spoken French, which some consider excessive. However, unlike in the rest of Canada where English will undoubtedly eventually prevail, it is not a given that newcomers to Quebec will eventually turn to French. It is hoped that requiring a higher level of spoken French for permanent residence will encourage linguistic integration into the francophone community.

In the vast majority of cases, provincial programs are explicitly or implicitly aimed at people already in the country with work experience or a combination of study and work experience in Canada. The application conditions may specify “must be living in Canada at the time of application” or may include a valid long-term, full-time nonseasonal job offer from a Canadian employer.

The job offer condition is an implicit onshore requirement because there are very few applications from abroad with a valid Canadian job offer. In Quebec between 2013 and January 2021, only 2 per cent of principal applicants to the regular skilled workers program who were granted certificates of selection had valid job offers from Quebec employers.5 People applying for permanent residence on the basis of a long-term job offer from a Canadian employer have been working in the country for some time and have impressed a Canadian employer enough to be offered a permanent position in the form of a written declaration from the employer. I address the implications of such a requirement below.

Being selected through a provincial nomination program facilitates approval for permanent residence at the federal level, but the bureaucracy involved in applications at both levels complicates matters.

The one-step pathway

People applying for permanent residence from outside Canada could be excused for thinking that the process is a like a lottery. You need to “express your interest” by filling out an online form on a platform called Express Entry (Quebec has its own platform called Arrima). Then you wait. If your application is deemed of interest by the government, you will receive an “invitation to apply.” (If you are not invited to apply within one year, your file is deleted from the candidates’ pool and you start all over again.) After receiving the invitation, you then have two months to provide the detailed information required for a formal request for permanent residence.

Once the government (federal or Quebec) is satisfied that the file is complete, it commits to processing the application within six months. It applies points for different characteristics (age, language proficiency, level of education, type of experience and training, family, connections in Canada, etc.). If you accumulate enough points, the permanent residence visa is approved.

In Quebec, if your application is approved, a Quebec Selection Certificate (known as a CSQ) is issued. You must then apply to the federal government for permanent residence which, under the Canada-Quebec Agreement, will be approved, pending security and health checks. However, for administrative reasons linked to planned admission levels, the issuance of the visa by the federal government may take several months or even well over two years.

The two-step pathway

A temporary work or study visa, on the other hand, takes two to six months to process. Within two or three years of arriving in Canada, you may be eligible to apply for permanent residence through the Canadian Experience Class (CEC) or the Programme d’Expérience Québécoise (PEQ).6 Again, the file should be processed within six months. The temporary visa route has become the procedure of choice for both candidates and employers simply because the initial visa is easier and quicker to obtain and permanent residence is almost guaranteed if the foreign worker meets the conditions of the CEC or one of the multitude of provincial nominee programs.

The length of time required to obtain permanent residence through a period of temporary residence – two-step immigration – is potentially longer than through an offshore application, but it is much more of a sure thing and a temporary visa gets the foreign worker or student entry into Canada more quickly. Nevertheless, if the objective is in fact permanent residence, as is increasingly the case, considerable planning is necessary to be sure that the program of study or the type of work obtained will meet the conditions of one of the provincial or federal programs.

There are two overall temporary work programs: the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) and the International Mobility Program (IMP). As a recent study published by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) explained, the main distinction between the two programs is that work authorizations under the TFWP require a Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA), which “serves to verify a number of factors, primarily if a Canadian is available to do the job,” whereas under the IMP an employer can issue a job offer without seeking an LMIA. Also, all work authorizations under the TFWP are limited to a specific employer, while the IMP includes both employer-specific permits – also known as closed permits – and open work permits.7

Only 6 per cent of those who transitioned from a temporary to a permanent status in Canada in 2019 did so from the TFWP. This is because the vast majority in this program are agricultural workers who return home after the harvest. As figure 1 shows, numbers of TFWP permit-holders other than agricultural workers and caregivers have had their ups and downs since 2000. Increases were interrupted by sharp drops in 2010–11 and again in the mid-2010s. The drops were due to the tightening of labour market evaluations, when it became public that some companies were hiring from overseas without making an effort to hire or train local workers.

The pattern differs from province to province (we are looking here only at the three provinces that make up over 75 per cent of Canada’s immigration intake – Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia). In Quebec, the number of TFWP permit-holders other than agricultural workers and caregivers went up by 53 per cent (from 5,085 to 7,765) between 2009 and 2019. In contrast, the number in Ontario dropped by 38.5 per cent – 13,245 to 7,080 – over the same time period. In B.C., the number of permit-holders in this subcategory dropped by 16 per cent, but the total number in 2019 (15,185) was double that of Ontario or Quebec, B.C being the province with the largest increase between 2017 and 2019.

About 70 per cent of work permits issued in 2018 were under the International Mobility Program.8 There are 24 subcategories of LMIA exemptions in the IMP, as outlined in table 1. Within each subcategory, there are dozens of specific situations, each with its own specific type of permit. Each type of permit comes with its own eligibility conditions and duration and rules regarding renewability.

In table 2, only a few of the most significant subcategories are presented, as well as those of interest in terms of comparability. By far the largest number of permits issued under this program in 2019 were postgraduate permits, which represented 41 per cent of the IMP permits in Quebec, almost 60 per cent in Ontario and 45 per cent in B.C. Other subcategories of interest shown in table 2 include the following:

Section 16 of NAFTA (now called the Canada–United States–Mexico Agreement or CUSMA), provides for the entry of U.S. and Mexican citizens for certain specific work-related matters. However, it is stipulated that these permits will not provide a pathway to permanent residence.

The significant benefit – general category is designed to be delivered under exceptional circumstances “where an LMIA is not available, and a specific exemption is not applicable, but the balance of practical considerations argues for the issuance of a work permit in a time frame shorter than would be necessary to obtain the ESDC opinion.”9

At this time, there are three reasons for IMP permits related to federal-provincial international agreements – significant investments, natural disasters and protection of foreign workers.

International Experience Canada allows young people (18 to 35) to work while travelling and vacationing in Canada. It is dependent on reciprocal agreements with other countries.

The total number of IMP permits almost tripled in Quebec and quadrupled in Ontario from 2009 to 2019, while growing by a smaller amount in B.C. (table 2). Composition changed dramatically as well, as the number of postgraduate permits increased by several hundred per cent in all three provinces, while the number of International Experience permits declined in Ontario and B.C. and remained stable in Quebec. It is to be noted that the increase in postgraduate permits mirrors the increase in study permits discussed in Part 1 in the Winter/Spring issue.

Some pertinent questions

1. Is there a method in this madness?

The short answer is: I can’t see one. This rapid trend toward inviting more temporary workers than permanent ones into the country and then opening pathways to permanent residence represents a massive shift in immigration policy undertaken by the federal government in the last five or six years, with no open consultation whatsoever. If the federal government has a coherent strategy, it’s keeping it pretty close to its chest. Which in politics often means there is no strategy and improvisation reigns.

2. Is it an economic strategy to address labour shortages?

It’s hard to believe, when the largest numbers of permits are handed out under what is called an International Education Strategy. Study permits are authorized with few restrictions on the field of study, so we are not necessarily educating people in fields which are in demand in the current labour market. Students can’t take on full-time work until after they obtain a diploma or a degree; then they get open work permits if they want to stay on. They may accept available lower-paid jobs, but they will be overqualified and, clearly, will not stay in the jobs once they become permanent residents. In fact, as mentioned above, most pathways to permanent residence pass through experience in jobs for which specific skills are required. Employers with long-term positions to fill generally don’t want to hire overqualified employees. The spouses of these students can work full-time, but they too tend to be well educated.

The same applies to the type of “temporary policy” granting permanent residence to certain categories of temporary workers that was announced in April. Agricultural workers are among the categories targeted. Normally agricultural workers come to Canada during the growing season, sending money back to their families and returning to their families at the end of the season. It is back-breaking work under difficult conditions and the worker’s permit is linked their employer. If they decide to accept the permanent residence that is offered, will they want to continue on the same farm under the same conditions or will they look for other work and apply to bring their family to Canada?

The temporary work permit system helps to get workers into the country more quickly, but can it be a long-term solution for medium- to long-term labour market requirements?

3. Is two-step immigration good for those who choose it?

At least one study suggests that it depends on the type of work experience:

The skill level of prior Canadian work experience matters significantly to earnings. Former temporary residents with work permits for skilled jobs had much higher initial earnings than immigrants without any prior Canadian experience. This earnings gap narrowed during the first 10 years but did not disappear. By comparison, former temporary residents with work permits for non-skilled jobs had significantly lower initial earnings and slower earnings growth than immigrants without any prior Canadian experience. Former foreign students without prior Canadian skilled work experience had slightly higher initial earnings than immigrants landing directly from abroad, entirely because of their longer stay in Canada.10

One of the problems with many studies comparing permanent residents with or without previous on-shore work experience is that the comparisons are made between residents with the same number of years after obtaining the permanent visa. But is this a fair comparison? Should it not be based on the number of years after arrival?

Heralding temporary residence as a pathway to permanent residence places many of those who come in a very precarious position. With open permits being given to the spouses of temporary workers and international students, both partners will be living precariously.

Educational institutions and employers often contract recruitment to intermediaries, opening the door to exploitation. Stories abound of foreign students and workers paying exorbitant fees to come to Canada with promises of work permits, study permits, high-paid jobs, permanent residence, citizenship and the ability to bring family members, with huge disappointments and little recourse.

A recent report released by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada has a good description of the potential results of the growing dependence on recruitment intermediaries: “If on a spectrum or continuum, fair and ethical recruitment practices would be at one end with forced labour and human trafficking at the other. The broad range of abusive and unfair recruitment practices fall in the somewhat grey area between them.”11 Considerable legislation has been put in place to try to regulate these intermediaries. Apart from the relatively small employment sector under federal jurisdiction, this is a provincial responsibility, and the response has been as complex as the immigration system itself. The same report concluded,

Taken together, the sum of provincial regulatory approaches to international labour recruitment and employment is an intricate patchwork: uneven in protections and characterized by variance in scope, content, and sanctions. And this patchwork is further complicated by the way in which it irregularly layers with federal matters of immigration, including its laws and programs. From any perspective, be it from the view of a migrant worker, an employer, a recruiter, or a government, these laws are challenging to grasp at once. The consequence is markedly distinct coverage of migrant worker protections across Canada and inconsistency of rules for relevant players, including recruiters active in multiple jurisdictions.12

For many of the transition programs to permanent residence, fast-track processing requires proof of a full-time long-term job offer at a particular level. Even workers with open work permits, which allow them to change employers, are therefore dependent on their employer to achieve their dream to stay in Canada. The type of temporary permit also may affect access of temporary workers and their families to certain essential public services. As most of these services come under provincial jurisdiction, each province determines how the status of the temporary resident affects access to services.

It should also be noted that temporary residents do not have the right to vote or run for office. This is also the case for permanent residents, something being called into question by some parties on the left.

Jurisdictional mismatch

The immigration system in Canada has become a serious jurisdictional mismatch. The original British North America Act (Constitution Act, 1867) stipulates in Article 95 that both the federal and provincial governments may legislate in the fields of immigration and agriculture. Constitutional historians explain this by the fact that, at the time, essentially the only purpose of immigration was to colonize and to work the land. Since the management of public lands and property rights were under provincial jurisdiction, the two fields were naturally linked.

In practice the provinces, with few exceptions, let the federal government occupy the field of immigration until the latter half of the 20th century. Quebec, in 1968, was the first province to develop an overall immigration policy, enact it into law and create a department of immigration to put it into effect. A few others have followed in recent years, but much is still maintained at the administrative level with federal-provincial agreements, most of which require renewal every five years. Quebec’s agreement is open-ended and includes an “opt-out” arrangement with an accompanying transfer of funds for integration and francization services.

Such agreements deal with permanent immigration, but the federal government has exclusive jurisdiction over “naturalization and aliens.” With time it has assumed responsibility for who can enter the country and who can be deported and under what conditions. The federal-provincial agreements require consultation with the provinces, but national admission levels are set by the federal government and include allotments of a certain number of candidates who can be nominated by each province. Quebec, in contrast, is able to set its own annual admission levels in consultation with the federal government.

Temporary immigration is run exclusively by the federal government. And temporary immigration is unplanned, with no caps on the number of permits granted. It is not hard to imagine a day in the not-too-distant future (postpandemic) when there will be more temporary residents eligible for permanent residence than the planned admission levels will allow. At that point, there will be only two options: they will have to leave (or be deported) or stay on undocumented.

There is already a very small pilot project in place in collaboration with the Canadian Labour Congress to help find a pathway to citizenship for such undocumented immigrants in the construction industry. Nevertheless, amnesty programs should be the last resort. The increase in temporary residents is leading to rumours of more people staying in Canada when their permit expires. Without exit visas, it is impossible to know how many temporary residents are in the country with expired permits, and this number is expected to grow.

This brings us to the issue of settlement services. Despite encouraging the two-step immigration process, the federal government offers no settlement services for temporary arrivals. It stands to reason: if they are really temporary residents, how can we know if their intention is to stay on? Should public resources be spent on offering settlement services and language courses to people who have not yet expressed a specific interest in staying on? In fact, the instructions for the processing of temporary permits specifically prohibit federal officers from taking into consideration the capacity of the applicant to adapt to the host society: “An officer should NOT consider perceived challenges the applicant might face in interacting with the broader community, such as availing him/herself of community services, if this is not relevant to their job performance.”13

For permanent immigrants, it is generally the provinces that provide these services directly or indirectly. For example, when permanent residents selected by Quebec arrive at the Montreal airport, they are directed to the Quebec ministry of immigration counter. At that counter, they can receive information on how they can access services and what their rights are, and appointments can be set up on the spot for welcoming or settlement sessions or French classes. Not all will sign up immediately, but at least the offer is there.

However, in Quebec as in other provinces, this does not apply to temporary residents on arrival. The provinces have no way of knowing when temporary workers and students arrive and therefore cannot intervene in a timely manner. In the case of French language training in Québec, it is particularly important to be able to intervene as quickly as possible. At this time, most of the settlement needs of temporary residents in Canada are left to employers, educational institutions and recruitment agencies. The result is highly uneven and largely unregulated.

It is the provinces that know their local labour market needs; this is obvious from the wide range of specific occupations and training identified by the different provinces in their provincial nominee programs. The provinces provide direct services to the population for health care, driver’s licences, child care, education, public transportation and public housing, and hence it is they that have an idea of how much the system can take. It is they that are responsible, as mentioned, for labour protection laws, employment policy and employment training programs.

And yet it is the federal government that sets the numbers of admissions and decides who gets a temporary permit, for what purpose, for how long, whether it is open or closed and whether an employer needs to demonstrate a labour market need.

It’s time to talk

The immigration system in Canada has become so complex that nobody can keep up with the constantly moving target of permanent residence. People who arrive as permanent residents can count on stability and on access to all public services for themselves and the family members who accompany them. They may turn to an immigration consultant, but do not need to, so the only fees are to the government for the processing of their application. They can concentrate on starting their new life without fear of exploitation.

Recruitment of permanent residents from abroad is government-controlled. The Canadian system, as we have known it for several decades, has been based on legislated consultation and, one would hope, on data on labour market needs, levels of social acceptability, demographic and linguistic priorities and the capacity of local services to absorb the new arrivals and help them settle successfully in their new communities. This level of planning would probably be more effective at the provincial level, as in Quebec, but for permanent immigration at least the principles and structure are in place requiring the federal government to consult and plan.

Also, the one-step immigration process provides the government – at least the federal and Quebec governments – with complete information on the people granted permanent residence. We know their ages, whether they have school-aged children, their field and level of study, their work experience in their home country, their language skills and their city of destination, and we have their email addresses. All this information could and should allow for efficient planning of settlement services and the possibility to do follow-ups.

But this is only the visible part of the iceberg. Most newcomers, as this analysis has shown, arrive as temporary residents. Temporary residence is insecure. People cannot plan their lives – decide to start a family, buy a home – until they are sure they are receiving their permanent residence visa. They are also vulnerable to exploitation. While there has been no significant evaluation of the effectiveness of temporary workers in resolving labour market shortages, we do know that the excessive trend toward recruiting international students has left postsecondary institutions dependent on this clientele. It has been one of the factors leading to the bankruptcy of Laurentian University in Ontario.

According to a Boston Consulting group report on “global talent,” Canada is now the first destination choice of foreign workers. Whereas 30 years ago the near-universal preference was for “America, America, America,” in the intervening decades “the appeal of the US as a work destination has declined.” The same report surveyed people’s willingness to move to another country for work, which it found to have declined from almost two thirds in 2014 to about half.14 Economic immigration as we know it will undoubtedly decline, particularly in the knowledge economy. On the other hand, the news is filled each day with migrants fleeing for their lives from conflict zones. Studies abound on how climate change is going to force relocation of huge portions of the world’s population – people with varying levels of wealth, work experience and language skill.

Canada needs to be prepared. Being a long way from where most of the conflicts and climate damage is happening has given us the false sense that we can control the flows of migrants into the country. But Canada is seen as a safe country with lots of space and natural resources, especially water, and, let’s face it, it’s not as cold as it used to be!

If the traditional one-step, points-based permanent immigration process has failed in its economic or demographic objectives, it is time to say so. It is time for governments, experts and stakeholders to sit down and determine the most effective way to manage the changes that are already happening. It is time to clarify precisely what the objectives of the migration management process are and who should be responsible for which steps.

Temporary immigration should be confined to temporary needs. International education should be geared toward educational, innovation and research purposes – the sharing of knowledge. People who arrive in Canada, often because they have been forced to leave their original home countries, need to be welcomed into a society and communities that are ready, willing and able to help them adapt and thrive.

This is not the time for partisan improvisation.

In case you missed it, click to read part 1 of this article, How Immigration Really Works in Canada.


1 Matt Lundy and Tamsin McMahon, Canada Goes on Immigration Blitz, Lowers Cut-off Score, Globe and Mail, February 16, 2021.

2 Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, Communiqué, April 14, 2021.

3 This analysis does not cover in detail caregiver, seasonal agricultural workers and asylum seekers who also hold temporary status, since these are particular situations which would require specific in-depth examination.

4 Government of Canada, Find Your NOC; Government of Canada, Compare All Express Entry Programs.

5 This information was revealed in a recent response to an access to information request to the Quebec ministry of immigration. There were 56,070 principal applicants, of whom 1,162 included valid Quebec job offers.

6 The Programme d’Expérience Québécoise also results in a CSQ and the candidate must then apply for the permanent residence visa from the federal government. For the same reasons noted for offshore applications, there are at the moment significant delays in this process.

7 Leanne Dixon-Perera, Regulatory Approaches to International Labour Recruitment in Canada (Ottawa: Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, Policy Research, Research and Evaluation Branch, June 2020), p. 8.

8 Ibid., p. 9.

9 Government of Canada, International Mobility Program: Canadian Interests – Significant Benefit General Guidelines (R205(a) – C10).

10 Feng Hou and Aneta Bonikowska, The Earnings Advantage of Landed Immigrants Who Were Previously Temporary Residents in Canada, Cat. No. 11F0019M – No. 370 (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 2015).

11 Dixon-Perera, Regulatory Approaches, p. 8.

12 Ibid., p.64

13 Government of Canada, Foreign Workers: Assessing Language Requirements.

14 Orsolya Kovács-Ondrejkovic, Rainer Strack, Jens Baier, Pierre Antebi, Kate Kavanagh and Ana López Gobernado, Decoding Global Talent, Onsite and Virtual (Boston: Boston Consulting Group, March 2021), pp. 1, 3.