#LauraAlbanese, #CitizenshipImmigration, #Multicultural, #OntarioImmigrants
In an exclusive interview with Ontario Minister of Immigration and Citizenship by INBSCanada Inc., Laura Albanese highlights the improvement in the immigration status of Ontario.
Excerpts of an interview with the minister:
You have worked in broadcast journalism spanning over two decades, from 1984 to 2007 at OMNI TV Italian edition in a number of capacities. What motivated you to shift to politics?
This change was gradual. I was fascinated, when young, with history and was always thinking about how politics can impact one’s life. Life brought me from Italy to Canada and here I followed a very successful career in journalism. For a long time I did not plan of entering into politics although the thought was always at the back of my mind. Then our local representative resigned from the York region and then I sent in my application and was accepted. There were many other contributing factors. At that time we had moved to York region and found it underdeveloped and I thought I have a chance to contribute to its improvement.
When you started your political career at a rather mature age, you chose to join the Liberal over other political parties....Why?
Many people had asked me this question before. It was John F. Kennedy who had inspired me about this. At that time in United States, Kennedy was challenged for being a liberal . His reply that if by being a liberal you mean looking forward and not backwards, then Yes I am a liberal. I echo that sentiment and I believe working in a society where all people have the same opportunities irrespective of their backgrounds and that these values are best reflected in the liberal party.
Now you have completed a decade in politics and that too very successfully, after a humble beginning as Liberal candidate from by-election in York region riding. In your early days as MPP you held Parliamentary Assistants positions in the Ministry of Tourism, Culture & Sports in 2011-2012; after that of PA to the Minister of Labour. Then in 2013 PA to our Premier and Deputy Government Whip. Finally in 2016 you were appointed as Minister of Citizenship & Immigration. Was it your choice or were you appointed by the premier?
It is now 10 years that I have been in politics although it seems just yesterday. Time passes so fast. During these years I had a chance to served as parliamentary assistants for different ministries and to learn different legislative procedures. I had experience working in different projects, so different and yet so interesting. For example I was worked as chair of a selected media of development services and learnt all about development issues in children and services about it and what the province does for this. I was able to identify where the needs and the gaps were and how I could do a better job and learnt where we can make recommendations. Most of these recommendations have been implemented by the government. I also worked as a parliamentary assistant to the ministry of finance where I was given a project to review credit unions. It was a tremendous experience for me to learn all the laws of the credit unions and their importance in rural areas, in the Northern areas and for ethnic communities. From last June I had been appointed by Kathleen Wynne to head the ministry of Immigration and Citizenship and I feel very honoured. Being an immigrant myself, I feel I can understand the difficulties new immigrants face and I felt confident that I will improve some areas of the Ministry.
What are the milestones you achieved and challenges you faced in your rise as a minister?
Regarding the milestone, I want to admit that I am very conscious of the fact that I will be a minister till next June. Then we will have a provincial election and I do not know what the future holds. I have been given a mandate letter by the premier and she expects some contributions from me. I have to prove myself to the premier for the next two years.I know I cannot change the world but I can atleast leave the ministry in a better place than when I arrived. Regarding my greatest achievement it is in modernizing the program called Ontario Immigration Nominee Program (OINP). This program allows our province to nominate applicants to the federal government for permanent residence. So we get an allocation from federal government. Last year when I arrived We got an allocation of 5500 applications a year. We then worked hard to get an increase and we got an increase of 500 and so this year we were able to get an allocation of 6000. Now we are hoping the Federal Government would give us greater number in the future. We are modernising the whole system to make it faster. We have also opened the entrepreneur stream, the Internationals students’ stream for masters degrees and PhD. programs. The French speaking high skilled workers stream is also opened. Another thing that I am working on with the federal government is signing the new Canada Ontario Accord. Our province had been without a formal agreement with federal government since 2011. This is the project I have been assigned and we are working hard to get it done.
My next question is about the point system by which the immigrants are evaluated for migration to Canada. Most preferred destination of Canada is Toronto. How is your department handling the settlement program for the newcomers? We know your ministry runs social programs. What are those and how do the newcomers get the benefit of the program or courses run by your ministry?
Yes the federal government has a point system, But I want to clarify that the admission into the country is the responsibility of the federal government. As a provincial Minister, I can not decide to make selection. We can only nominate, not select. It is the federal government who decides as to who can come. But we have in our mandate to provide a bulk of programs offered through our ministry, such as: Language programs, newcomers settlement programs; assistance to navigate employment programs, refugees’ programs, economic immigrants etc. Many years ago these programs were not in place. For example, when my family arrived these programs were not there. But I believe these programs are important to make the newcomers succeed. Because if a new comer succeeds, we succeed as a society. The sooner they can get integrated into society and start contributing in the economy, they lead to improvement in our economy.
These immigrants’ settlement programs have a price tag to run this smoothly and successfully. How much Federal funding is Ontario getting and what are the main target areas where you think we need more focus and resources?
This funding for the promotion of the programs should be seen as an investment. The immigrants receive some help: in finding the closest and the best school, getting them jobs, getting assistance in language, in creating a resume. Ontario in Canada is founded on immigration. Except for indigenous people, we all have come to Canada from different places. The sooner we get integrated and become financially independent, is better for our society and for the aging population which is growing very fast in Canada.
We all know when you educate a girl you educate the whole family. Does your ministry have some special program to enhance the skills for women in particular?
We offer a bulk of programs and some particularly for women which are: Newcomer settlement program which help new immigrants to navigate and orient themselves in the new country. Then there are language teaching programs in both English and French languages, offered through our school boards free of charge. Our ministry spends an average of $60 million a year for this initiative. Another important program offered by us is: Ontario bridge training program. This program enables highly skilled immigrants get their licences in their back-home fields of study. These programs, thus help the immigrants search jobs in their field of choice and help them settle down in their community fast. Specific women refugee programs offered are: helping them in child bearing while they are pursuing their language training. We have a special ministry to look at the issues of women under the leadership of Indira Naidu- Harris. Currently she serves as Minister of Women's Issues and Minister Responsible for Early Years and Child Care. We also offer programs in child care which is expanding. There are also special agencies in our province which provide counseling to women who had been victims of abuse.
Are there any Immigration and Refugee Board Guidelines about LGBT claimants? On June 2012 Bill C-31 protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act was passed which has amended the Refugee Protection Act, the Balances Refugee Reform Act. Do you think Bill C-31 affected LGBT claimants?
That bill is federal bill and it is their responsibility. Canada is a welcoming country. Ontario, in general believes in giving equal opportunity to everybody.
Canada resettled more than 25,000 Syrian refugees between November 4, 2015 and February 29, 2016. Citizenship and Immigration Canada’s commitment to resettling Syrian refugees to Canada continues in 2017 and as of date under different categories it crosses 40,000. A majority of the refugees from the war ravaged Syria are settling here in Ontario. How is it going and what are the key issues the refugees are facing?
Ontario, as a province, has taken the responsibility of having the biggest number of refugees that the federal government has decided to bring to Canada. Our country welcomes people ravaged by poverty, famine, terrorism, war etc. Back in 1970 we welcomed Vietnamese and Somalian refugees. More recently we have taken the responsibility of Syrian refugees and we had accepted about 17,000 refugees since the end of 2015. Being aware that refugees need extra support, we do not do this only for humanitarian reason. We know that these people would become active people in our society. By helping them to integrate into the society fast and orienting them in economic independence, they would be contributing to our own economy. For one year the Canadian government provides them with financial assistance. Under the refugee programs, some arrived with government assistance, while many other refugees from Syria were privately sponsored. We offer a unique model in these programs and the rest of the world is trying to follow our initiatives. If after one year, these refugees fail to get any jobs, then they get qualified for social assistance but we give them extra support and provide them with more programs and training so that they become financially independent and start contributing to our economy.
According to Sam Jisri, the executive director of Syrian Active Volunteers, only half of the roughly 5,200 refugees who have settled in the Greater Toronto Area have been able to find work. He said he is concerned about the old refugees in particular. How is your department taking up the employment issues of the Syrian people?
When the crisis began in Syria, Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada announced an open immigration policy of allowing a big number of Syrian refugees to come to Canada. These refuges arrived very fast and we welcomed them. Our provincial ministry collaborated with other ministries at the provincial level as well as with the Syrian refugees’ secretariat. In fact, 11 ministries got together to help these refugees in settlement programs like with education, health, housing etc. But we learnt some important lessons. We had not got more required details. Next time this situation arises we know that we should share some data like what was their backgrounds, what jobs they were doing earlier etc. We have to learn what do you know and how to do? This would help us to provide suitable programs in their own field of interest to enable their settlement in the society and making them financially independent. Most of the Syrian refugees were mostly younger people 25 years of age or younger. For senior refugees, we have to be more patient. We have allocated, in our recent budget, total of $22.2 million for seniors and for the youth and many are finding their ways.
Please throw light on the different kinds of visas such as student visa, business visa etc., under which people from across the world apply for coming to Canada.
Granting of visas is under jurisdiction of the federal government. But we have an OINP program. Through this program province can give some points to those seeking immigration in Canada, but the final decision is made at the federal level. We also offer express entry skilled workers scheme in which we, as a province can only nominate but the final decision is again by the federal government. Granting of visas, and security checks is the federal responsibility while all programs are offered by our province.
We all know Donald Trump put a travel ban on certain Muslim nations and there is growing discrimination by U.S. administration for people under different visa categories or illegal immigrants. Those people are now flocking towards Canada and recently CBSF intercepted those people crossing our borders and claiming refugee status here. How is Ontario affected so far with this sudden influx of refugees from South of border? Are we working in close tandem with the Federal Immigration Refugee Minister and CBSA?
As mentioned earlier, it is the federal government which provides us with the data of people who come. Process is same for everyone, whether they come by plane, train, or by foot. Federal government does not send these people back. But after entering Canada these people do not automatically become refugees. They have to undergo some security checking. Canada Border Services are the first to interview them and then they can file their claim for refugee status. Their claims go through the tribunal, who would determine if they would be given a refugee status or they need to be sent back. This is the process for everybody. But for Syrians the procedure was a little different. Before Syrians arrived in Canada they already had the refugee status and were staying in the refugee camps. But all the security check procedures and their legitimization in the country were, nevertheless the same.
This year 2017 Federal budget focused mainly on infrastructure development, jobs and immigration and refugee settlement, your opinion about it.
I am very encouraged by the fact that for the first time in a decade, Ontario budget is balanced and this truly is a milestone. With this balanced budget we have the option of making more investment. Affordability of life has become better. All prescriptions drugs are free for 24 & younger. We are building new schools in the communities. Post secondary education is offered to children who want to pursue their studies, close to free regardless of the economic backgrounds of their parents.
There is more funding for hospitals, long-term cares, nursing homes and home cares. Dementia is a great concern at present and our province is taking care of it more seriously than in the past. Our budget has included $100 million for the dementia strategy. Youth are provided training and for their first Canadian experiences they are being offered jobs by Canadian private sectors and private businesses.
A new multicultural community grant targeted to multicultural non-profit organizations is available. Nearly six million dollar in the recent budget has been allocated for this new initiative. We are very much aware of the importance of our multicultural media in providing us with the right information.
On a lighter note, you hold such an important ministerial portfolio but at the end of the day you are also a woman and have a family. How do you balance your work life and family life
Sometimes it is very difficult for me to balance my career with my personal life. I have two grand kids and whenever I get a chance I enjoy with them. My family is very cooperative and understanding and during my busy time they let me go.
What will be your advice for those aspiring ladies who want to pursue a dynamic career like you, be it in business, politics or social service?
My advice to all the women is that they should get themselves fully involved in politics to be more aware of the happenings in the society and how they can contribute.
(Interview taken by Suman Das and Asha Bajaj)