The Canadian crisis

Written by Indira Kannan | Updated: Aug 25 2013, 06:41am hrs
For Toronto-based immigration lawyer Ravi Jain, August is traditionally a busy month with university and college semesters just around the corner and many of his clients coming from India, which is the second-largest source country for students heading to Canadian universities, next only to China.

This year, however, the situation has not been to Jains liking, thanks to a long-running strike called by Canadas foreign service officers that has severely affected processing of visas in India and other countries. His clients, who have obtained admission to popular institutions such as York University, George Brown College and Seneca College are stranded in India with no prospect of getting to Canada before the beginning of the first term in early September.

Student visas that took about a month are now taking three-four months, says Jain, a partner at the Toronto law firm, Green and Spiegel. Ive been advising my clients over the phone not to start packing their bags yet. Many of them are even willing to double my fees. Im saying, save your money because I cant help you right now, you need to get a deferral and go for the January intake, says Jain.

While students are among the worst affected by the strike due to the academic calendar, the delays in visa processing will also impact the plans of thousands of visitors, temporary workers and potential immigrants from India. India is home to Canadas largest overseas visa office, and the North American country issued a record number of visas to Indian nationals last year.

Canadas Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers (PAFSO) entered into a legal strike position on April 2, protesting what it described as a wage gap compared to other federal officers. Officers at missions around the world have withdrawn various services. In India, immigration services have been withdrawn in Delhi and Chandigarh. Whether it is trade negotiations, political reporting or issuance of visas, delays can be seen everywhere and for all files of the foreign services, said Chrystiane Roy, spokesperson for the Ottawa-based union.

The Canadian government assures that all visa offices are open and continue to provide services. We have designated immigration visa officers positions overseas as essential and, therefore, they will not participate in any strike, says Nancy Caron, the spokesperson for Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) at its Ottawa headquarters. According to PAFSO, only a small proportion of the visa officers are designated as essential, typically at the managerial levels, and they cannot complete the work of all the officers on strike, leading to major delays.

Jain confirms the assessment: The processing times are horrendous. Ive been speaking to managers in India and they have been trying to pick up the slack but the visa officers themselves are on rotating strike and its dramatically affecting operations. If its not a humanitarian situation, they are just not going to be able to get to it in a quick way.

The CIC said in addition to designated officials, over a thousand locally engaged staff would also continue to work in visa offices, and that it has hired additional temporary staff to help process visas in Canada and abroad. Nevertheless, Caron cautions: Anyone applying for a visa should submit their application as much in advance as possible.

To avoid additional delays, the Canadian government is also advising applicants to submit temporary visa applications online and documents and fees to the Visa Application Centres (VACs). Canada has nine VACs in India, spread across all regions.

The strike has come at an inconvenient time for the Canadian governments initiatives in India. Earlier this year, Jason Kenney, Canadas high-profile minister for citizenship and immigration until last month, unveiled the new Startup Visa for immigrants, a programme that encourages highly educated, qualifying entrepreneurs from countries like India to open their startups in Canada in exchange for quick permanent residency.

Kenney, now the minister of employment, even spent time at CICs booth at TiEcon 2013, the annual convention of the entrepreneurs mentoring group TiE in Californias Silicon Valley, pitching the Startup Visa to Indian entrepreneurs in the US.

In addition, Canadas tourism minister visited New Delhi earlier this year to invite more Indian tourists. India was the third-largest source country for immigration to Canada last year, with nearly 29,000 permanent residents.

The number of Indian visitors to Canada has been growing sharply in recent years. Last year, Canada issued a record 1,30,000 visitor visas to Indian nationals, a 58% increase since 2004. It also issued a record 13,000 student visas to Indians, a five-fold jump, during that period. During a visit to India in November last year, Canadas prime minister Stephen Harper announced plans to open a new consulate in Bangalore this year to handle the growing demand for visas.

According to CIC, roughly 80% of visitor visa applications in India this year had been processed in five days or less, down from the 12-day processing time last year. That performance is now in jeopardy as PAFSOs Roy promises: The backlog in processing will continue to increase until such a time as the Treasury Board presents the Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers with an acceptable offer. The standoff worsened in July this year after the association filed a bad faith bargaining complaint against the Canadian government for refusing to enter into binding arbitration to resolve the labour dispute.

For Indians waiting for a Canadian visa, no early end to their wait is in sight, as the union has declared: We are prepared to maintain our strike through the summer and deep into the fall, if necessary.

Indira Kannan is a freelance writer based in Toronto