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29th Feb 2016

Canadian government eases citizenship process for international students

The newly elected government of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has introduced legislation to repeal a number of controversial changes to the Canadian Immigration Act. Under the previous Conservative government, a number of changes to the Act were packaged as Bill C-24 and passed into law in June 2015. Of particular interest to international students were provisions that made the path to Canadian citizenship more difficult for foreign graduates. One of the key requirements for a citizenship application is physical residency in Canada. Bill C-24 increased the residency requirement from three years to four. But it also eliminated a special provision that allowed 50% of the time spent in Canada on a work or study visa to be counted against that physical residency requirement. As the University of Toronto’s student newspaper, The Varsity, put it at the time, "The bill states that you must spend at least 183 days in Canada each year for a total of four years to qualify for citizenship. International students spend at least 240 days a year here; most international students are completing a four-year programme. According to these numbers, international students should be eligible for citizenship by the end of their degrees. However, Bill C-24 has decreed that the time that international students spend in Canada while in school no longer counts towards the time necessary for procuring citizenship. This policy is clearly unfair. Being a student here is the best way to understand the rights and responsibilities of a Canadian citizen - at no other time in your life will you have the resources and freedom to explore and appreciate all that Canada has to offer."

A platform for change

The now-governing Liberal Party took up the issue in its electoral platform in the run-up to the 19 October 2015 federal election in Canada, promising that a Liberal government would, "Restore the residency time credit for foreign students and other temporary residents applying to become Canadian citizens." Most recently, the story took another turn on 25 February 2016 when Immigration Minister John McCallum formerly introduced his bill (Bill C-6, An Act to amend the Citizenship Act) to, in effect, repeal many of the changes introduced in 2015 under Bill C-24. Speaking to media last week, the Minister was clear as to the intent of his new legislation and the new government’s position on opening up greater opportunities for international students to pursue Canadian citizenship. "We seek to reduce barriers for those who wish to become Canadian citizens," said Minister McCallum. "We are restoring the 50% credit for time spent in Canada by international students. If I were asked what is the stupidest part of [the previous legislative changes under Bill C-24], I would say revoking the 50% credit for international students, because international students are the perfect candidates to become Canadian citizens and we are seeking them out as are other countries around the world." In addition to including time spent in Canada on a study or work visa towards the physical residency requirement, Bill C-6 will also reduce the period of physical residency required to apply for Canadian citizenship. It reduces the physical residency requirement from four out of the previous six years to three out of the previous five years.

The Canadian Experience Class and Express Entry

Also of note to international students, the government has committed to review Canada’s Express Entry process, pledging that, "We will make changes to the Canadian Experience Class to reduce the barriers to immigration that have been imposed on international students." As we reported last year, it was roughly 2005 when the Canadian government began to introduce policies designed expressly to help talented international students to become permanent residents of Canada. First introduced in 2008, the Canadian Experience Class programme was a notable example in this respect and it is considered to have been an important factor in the significant international enrolment growth that Canada has realised in the years since. Indeed, recent surveys by the Canadian Bureau for International Education have found that roughly half of the international students in Canada intend to apply for permanent residency at some point in the future. The path to the Canadian Experience Class programme was muddled somewhat in January 2015 by the introduction of a new system called Express Entry. We have written extensively about Express Entry in the past and readers who wish to have additional background are encouraged to review our earlier coverage. To sum up the mechanics of the programme quickly: anyone applying for permanent residency (via Canadian Experience Class or otherwise) must now first apply via the Express Entry system. All applications are scored within the system, and all applicants that score above a given threshold will receive an "Invitation to Apply" which then allows them to progress to the Canadian Experience Class process (or to another applicable programme under the Express Entry umbrella). Since the introduction of the Express Entry process, there have been a lot of questions about both the annual immigration quotas allocated to individual programmes, such as the Canadian Experience Class, and also about the scoring system used to rank and select applicants from the Express Entry pool. While it is not clear what steps the Canadian government may now take with respect to either the Canadian Experience Class or Express Entry, it seems likely that any policy moves designed to open greater opportunities for permanent residency and citizenship for international students would target one or both of the following:

  • immigration quotas associated with key permanent residency programmes relevant to international students, including the Canadian Experience Class; and/or
  • modifications to the scoring system to better recognise the experience of living, studying, and working in Canada that international students bring to their Express Entry applications.

Again, while it is not yet clear how the Canadian Experience Class will change as a result of the current government review, it seems certain that students, agents, and educators will watch closely for further developments on the file, particularly given its important to the residency and citizenship goals of many foreign students in Canada.

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