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'Canada is richer for immigrants' presence'

Last updated on: November 05, 2009 14:39 IST
Canadian minister of state for foreign affairs, Peter Kent discusses Canada and India with rediff.com's Ajit Jain

Peter Kent, minister of state for foreign affairs, used to be a broadcaster and worked as an anchor with the Global Television network for several years. Last year, he was elected to the House of Commons from Ontario's Thornhill Riding and immediately named as member of the Conservative cabinet.

Your constituency has a sizable number of South Asians?

I have people of different national origins. I have South Asians from across the spectrum — Sri Lankan Tamils, Indians, Pakistanis, even from Bangladesh. South Asians are well represented in my riding. As you know in Thornhill there are lots of South Asians and they aren't shy when it comes to getting in touch with a Member of Parliament and also when an MP is representative of the government. Their contributions are huge and continuing— socially, culturally, economically. There are a number of South Asian entrepreneurs and small businessmen and women. They are all making significant contributions to Canada and the country is richer for their presence and for their dynamic part of the rainbow that makes new Canada. South Asians are a very positive element in my constituency, in the country and the galaxy of communities. The government and the South Asian community have a great relationship, a great partnership and they are a very important part of the Canadian communities.

Do South Asian Canadians come and talk to you about the relationship between Canada and South Asia, about the problems between the two sides?

Sure. With regard to India, the Indian community has long urged different Canadian governments to establish a trade office in Gujarat and this year we did that. Now we have a total of eight trade offices in India. 

Liberal MP Scott Brison says Minister Stockwell Day's visit to Ahmedabad was just a photo opportunity. Trade between Canada and India, Brison says, has been declining under the Conservative government.

Trade is not directly my file. But certainly I know our trade with India is on the rise. When the Liberals withdrew the high commissioner from India following the nuclear testing in May 1998, the trade declined. But now across the spectrum the trade between Canada and India is rising. Gujarat is just the latest in the trade offices.

Discussions have been going on for some time about a Canada-India civilian nuclear agreement but so far nothing seems to have been finalized.

In general terms, trade with India was at an all-time high last year — $4.7 billion. It was up 30 percent over the previous year. So, the trade is certainly is on the rise. The forthcoming visit of Prime Minister Stephen Harper to India will emphasize and underline that. I don't have the details as yet on the official agenda but the discussion on the nuclear cooperation agreement represents tens of billions of dollars in opportunities for the Canadian industry and increased cooperation and work between the two countries in the industry and in the benefits of nuclear developments. Things are definitely on the upswing from where the trade figures were in the 1990s. 

What about discussions on the Free Trade Agreement?

We have the Foreign Investment Protection Agreement. It is the first step towards the Free Trade Agreement. We want to sign Free Trade Agreements with as many countries in the world as are willing to sign bilateral agreements. It is inevitably beneficial to both countries. Unlike other countries, we don't try to take advantage or twist arms when we sign Free Trade Agreements. We want to make sure that there's no resentment on one side or the other after the agreement has been signed.

The European Union has signed a Free Trade Agreement with CARICOM — the Caribbean countries. Even before the agreement was formalized, some member countries were openly resentful of the agreement as down the road they said they were being taken advantage of as it is not an evenhanded agreement.

What we try to make sure that the Free Trade Agreement is fair and balanced and likely to stand the test of time, same way as the North American Free Trade Agreement. It is not perfect and it is almost two decades old now.  The contemporary Free Trade Agreements we are signing with the countries now are much more sophisticated and cover all standards and considerations, environmental questions and so they are broad and relevant. Definitely it is in Canada's interest to be pursuing a Free Trade Agreement with India.

Are there still some issues between Canada and India?

I don't think so. Immigration Minister Jason Kenney was in India earlier this year, as well as International Trade Minister Stockwell Day. There are always issues with regard to the documents fraud with regard to visas and visa application process. But I am not aware of any glaring differences between the two countries. In fact on every level I am aware of, there's collaboration and cooperation on strengthening relationship.

Business people keep complaining about undue delay in issuing business visas by the Canadian mission in India.

I am aware of that. I have spoken to Jason Kenney about it and he's working on it. There are a number of program improvements that he's working on now to expedite the process both for the business and permanent residence visas. But a lot of problems still have to do with documentations. In my own constituency office we have a lot of inquiries about visa applications. I am able to help in many ways. Sometimes the applications are received too close to the intended trip or [are denied] for not having the supporting documents to support the reasons for traveling. I think in regard to business visa Immigration Minister Kenney has a program. You know it is a sensitivity in many parts of the world that we should issue multiple entry visas, rather than one-time only.

Shouldn't there be an appeal process for visitors' visas?

That's a question that Jason Kenney can answer. Many calls to my office talk about an informal appeal process. Sometimes when we intervene we can get positive results and sometimes we can't. People are free to call their Members of Parliament. Kenney is well aware of the problems and its solutions. I know he has aggressively tried to streamline the process. All I can say, my constituency office tries to help. Sometimes for a variety of reasons we are not able to help either because the timing is too tight. In other circumstances we have been able to help.

Does your office have to devote a lot of time attending to complaints about visas?

I will admit the visa issue is amongst the top two or three issues that people contact my constituency office [for]. The other issue would be passport — when the United States made it mandatory for [Canadian] people to have passports before they are allowed to go there; they never have had to have passports before.  Sometimes other issues have to do with accessing federal programs, how to access; as people turn 60 and 65 they have to get their old age securities and their pension documentation done and we have a lot of calls from people who require emergency requirements either traveling for a wedding or sickness or on the other hand trying to assist people who need to come to Canada at short notice or [for] a funeral. We get lots of other calls also from people who require all kinds of help from the provincial and the federal governments. They can't seem to get an answer either from the municipal level or their members of provincial parliaments.

Canadians are getting older and demographers say Canada will have to depend on immigration to ensure its economic engine keeps chugging.

Canada needs more immigrants. There's no doubt about it. We need more people, we need more people with all sorts of skills, professions to trades.

But many immigrants are being left out of the system by the regulatory bodies unwilling to recognize their skills.

You are right. It is the professional bodies that operate like closed shops. They are reluctant to add to their membership and we are very aware of that. We urge them at every opportunity about recognition of international credentials. Now, certification begins when a person interested in immigrating makes the first inquiry about moving to Canada. It is still a challenge. There are all sorts of obstacles. One of the best examples I give to people is the society of Indian engineers here in Canada, particularly in Toronto, which mentors fellow engineers as they arrive in Canada how to get through that process and get that first job so that they can begin practicing.

The Conference Board of Canada says the country is losing over $10 billion annually because immigrants are underemployed. The Royal Bank puts that figure at $14 billion.

We are well aware of the challenges and the frustrations. I don't know how many first generation professionals still drive taxis. Their children have graduated from medical schools and they are practicing lawyers across the spectrum. 

Image: Peter Kent

Ajit Jain in Toronto