As Canada stares down a potential crisis in its emergency rooms this summer, the federal government is planning to double the number of health-care professionals it welcomes each year.
But the vow comes as backlogs in processing immigration applications rose last month, and as Ottawa has unveiled multiple new high-profile streams to attract highly skilled newcomers.
“This is a big change in the way that we are going to attract health-care workers to this country,” said Immigration Minister Sean Fraser on Wednesday.
Fraser said the health-care workers could come through the federal Express Entry program, which is designed to bring highly skilled immigrants to the country.
Express Entry is a points-based pathway to permanent immigration that grants entry to the candidate with the highest points, regardless of what profession they are in. Now, though, Fraser said the process will offer a “streamlined and efficient” path for people in key sectors.
He said the federal government is now focusing on five key sectors facing labour shortages: health, STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) professions, agriculture, transportation and skilled trades.
But the first sector to benefit from this new process would be health care.
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Fraser said the government was inviting 500 skilled health-care workers to immigrate to Canada through the Express Entry process on Wednesday.
By July 5, he said the government will invite 1,500 more.
“We expect this new process is going to allow us to double the number of health-care workers that come through the federal express entry system as soon as this year,” Fraser said.
Fraser said that between 2017 and 2022, Canada welcomed around 21,000 health-care workers — a rate of just over 4,000 workers a year.
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The goal now is to get around 8,000 new health-care workers a year.
The new system, the minister said, will have to be accompanied by faster visa processing times. Fraser said that while the pandemic, accompanied by the two refugee crises in Afghanistan and Ukraine, hampered operations, IRCC has worked to improve backlogs.
“We went to work over the past couple of years by adopting new technologies, including advanced analytics, the embrace of AI in certain aspects of our operations. We also added enormous numbers of resources by hiring 1,600 people to help process applications more quickly and we started reducing administrative barriers,” he said in a response to a question from Global News.
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Canada’s immigration backlog rose for the month of May, with officials saying more kinds of applications are being tallied even as the department gets better at handling claims within the target timeframes.
Fraser said the measures are working.
“A new economic migrant coming to Canada is back to the six-month standard under the federal Express Entry system. Family reunification is back to the one-year standard we enjoyed before COVID-19. Work permits and study permits are back to the 60 days we enjoyed before the pandemic,” he said.
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Staffing shortages are expected to add to the strain of emergency rooms across Canada, experts have warned.
In May, Niagara Health said its urgent care centres in southern Ontario will no longer operate overnight as it faces physician staff shortages. The hospital in Minden, Ont., permanently closed the local ER due to a strain in staffing. In the same month, 180 ER doctors across Calgary penned an open letter sounding the alarm over the state of emergency care in that city.
Experts have warned that the crisis will be most acutely felt in rural areas.
Last week, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said the country’s “already quite burdened” ERs were likely to face an influx of patients seeking treatment for health conditions triggered by wildfire smoke, which has been wafting across the country from hundreds of major fires.
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