John McCallum – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

(As published in Policy Options)

On January 10, 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed Ahmed Hussen as the minister of immigration, refugees and citizenship. Hussen replaced John McCallum, who had been the minister since November 4, 2015.

This is the third time that I am weighing the good, the bad and the ugly about a Canadian immigration minister. It is in some ways the most difficult time, given that McCallum’s tenure was so short. My first assessment of an immigration minister was about Jason Kenney, who remains Canada’s longest-serving immigration minister, having held the role for 1,719 days. His successor, Chris Alexander, whom I also wrote about, led Canada’s immigration department for 826 days. John McCallum was Canada’s immigration minister for only 433 days.

To some extent, the busy nature of McCallum’s tenure made up for its short duration. He was the first immigration minister in Trudeau’s Liberal majority government, which assumed power after an election campaign in which refugee and citizenship issues were prominent. Because McCallum had also been the Liberal immigration critic during Canada’s previous Conservative government, and had also served as a cabinet minister in previous Liberal governments, he was able to hit the ground running in implementing his mandate. Nonetheless, the comparative lack of material to write about was noticeable as I prepared this article.

The Good

John McCallum’s biggest accomplishment as Canada’s immigration minister, and the one that he will definitely be most remembered for, was presiding over the resettlement of over 39,000 Syrian refugees in Canada. Given the numerous significant challenges associated with such a grand endeavour, it is doubtful that someone without McCallum’s previous cabinet experience would have been able to achieve what he did in such a short period. While some may quibble that he technically did not fulfill the Liberal Party of Canada’s even more ambitious campaign promises, history will remember that during a period when the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, at least partially due to xenophobia, and Donald Trump was elected US president after stoking anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic sentiments, Canada welcomed 39,000 predominantly Muslim refugees.   

Indeed, the change in tone emanating from Canada’s immigration department under McCallum, compared with the tone under the Conservatives, was striking. I have previously written that if the only changes the Liberals made were to stop denying certain refugee claimants access to health care and to stop prohibiting Muslim women from wearing face veils at citizenship ceremonies, the 2015 federal election would be significant. McCallum reversed both these Conservative policies, and he publicly and repeatedly espoused the principles of inclusiveness and “welcoming,” often with the use of hashtags on Twitter.

As of this writing, the only bill that McCallum introduced as immigration minister is still before the Senate. Bill C-6, An Act to Amend the Citizenship Act and to Make Consequential Amendments to Another Act, contains several agreeable provisions; one lets permanent residents count the time that they resided in Canada before they became a permanent resident toward their citizenship residency requirement; another removes the bizarre requirement that people applying for Canadian citizenship have to intend to always reside in Canada after becoming citizens.

More controversially, Bill C-6 also fulfills the Liberal campaign promise to repeal the federal government’s power to revoke the Canadian citizenship of individuals who the government determines pose national security risks. While my thoughts on the philosophical arguments for and against such a power remain fluid, the wording of the existing legislation was so overbroad, vague and lacking in procedural fairness that its immediate repeal was necessary.

McCallum also introduced regulatory changes to repeal “conditional permanent residency,” a status assigned to people in new relationships who were sponsored by their spouses to immigrate to Canada; they would lose their permanent residency if the relationship broke down within two years. Although the Liberals disingenuously presented the repeal as facilitating family reunification — when in fact conditional permanent residency never changed the process of people actually entering Canada — the prospect of deportation following a marital breakdown led to some recent immigrants remaining in abusive relationships to avoid deportation and others falsely alleging abuse by their Canadian sponsors in order to stay in the country. While I understand the motives behind the previous Conservative government’s introduction of conditional permanent residency, the enforcement headache and unintended consequences it created simply outweighed its benefits.

Finally, McCallum also reduced processing times for applicants in the family class, introduced draft regulations to allow young people to be considered dependents for immigration purposes until age 21 and abolished the four-year cap on how long temporary foreign workers can work in Canada. The increase in the age of dependency (the previous cut-off was 18) will ensure that more young people are able to immigrate with their families to an aging Canada, and the removal of a fixed limit on how long foreign nationals can work here empowers employees and employers to make their own decisions about the length of their relationship.

The Bad

While Minister McCallum will be remembered fondly for his commitments to refugee resettlement and family reunification, his decision to cut economic immigration in 2016 without making it easier for current foreign workers to stay in Canada was disastrous, especially for international graduates working in Canada on postgraduate work permits. Changes he made in November 2016 to help international graduates qualify for permanent residency were viewed as insufficient by most observers, and his concurrent decision to reduce the value of working in Canada as a factor in the calculation of eligibility for permanent residency came as a blow to thousands of foreign workers. As immigration critic, McCallum had been vocal about the need to ensure a pathway to permanent residency for all foreign workers, not just high-skilled ones. By the end of his tenure as immigration minister, Canada still did not have a federal pathway to permanent residency for low-skilled foreign workers, and McCallum had closed the door to permanent residency for many high-skilled ones as well.

During the 2015 election campaign the Liberals promised to increase from 5,000 to 10,000 the number of people who could apply to the Parent and Grandparent Program. Under McCallum the government did double the number of applications for sponsorship that would be accepted into processing; however, it did not double the number of applications that would actually be processed. The result was essentially the same as if the number who could apply had not been increased at all, and to those who realized what had happened, the government once again simply looked disingenuous.

Another move of McCallum’s that caused cynicism was his cross-country tour to allegedly learn from Canadians what Canada’s immigration levels should be. The Minister would seemingly ignore poll after poll showing that Canadians did not want a substantial increase in immigration, and instead emerged from meetings with pre-approved stakeholders saying that there was overwhelming support for more immigration. Ultimately, the Liberals appeared to listen to the polls and decided not to substantially increase immigration levels. The shift made the Minister’s statements all the more baffling.

Finally, under the previous Conservative government, Jason Kenney as immigration minister was thought to have great influence over policy development at both the Canada Border Services Agency and Employment and Social Development Canada, which processes Labour Market Impact Assessment applications to allow companies to employ foreign workers and support their existing foreign workers for permanent residency. McCallum did not appear to have similar influence, and while his respect of ministerial boundaries may be lauded by some, the lack of a coherent policy and tone emanating from the different departments involved in managing Canada’s immigration system was frustrating.

The Ugly

One thing that surprised people about Bill C-6 was that McCallum did not change the citizenship revocation process for Canadians who were alleged to have received their citizenship through misrepresentation. The current process is that a Canadian citizen facing such an allegation will typically have only 60 days to respond in writing. There is generally no oral hearing, and no meaningful appeal. As many have noted, Canadians have more procedural fairness in responding to parking tickets than when they risk losing their citizenship. While the House of Commons was debating Bill C-6, McCallum seemed to acknowledge that this was problematic, but he said that any changes to the process would come later.

Then word emerged that fellow cabinet minister Maryam Monsef might have made misrepresentations in her own citizenship application. Although it is not clear whether there actually was misrepresentation that could lead to revocation in the Monsef case, the government immediately announced that it was considering a number of options to change the revocation process; the matter remains unresolved. Any Canadian paying attention could be forgiven for thinking that there is one set of laws for most people and another for elites.

Going Forward

If McCallum will be remembered for his resettling of 39,000 Syrian refugees, his successor, Ahmed Hussen, will likely be judged on how he handles one person: Donald Trump.

In his first month, Hussen had to respond to Trump’s executive order banning certain foreign nationals from entering the United States, a dramatic increase in undocumented border crossings from the United States, and to the resulting calls from human rights organizations for Canada to suspend the Safe Third Country Agreement between Canada and the United States.

Hussen does not have an easy task ahead of him. Luckily, he does not need to look far to find inspiration for how to buck global trends and stand up for the government of Canada’s objectives. He need only look to his predecessor.


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