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Melnick takes Manitoba’s case to the community

 
 
Manitoba Minister of Immigration and Multiculturalism Christine Melnick

The Manitoba response to the recent announcement of changes in settlement service administration took another step forward when the provincial immigration Minister spoke directly to the local Filipino community. In an open forum hosted at PCCM by Flor Marcelino, the Manitoba Minister for Culture, Heritage and Citizenship, the Minister of Immigration and Multiculturalism Christine Melnick presented the provincial government’s case to the community. The roughly 100 attendees at PCCM heard firsthand the Minister’s explanation about what has happened in the last month. She spoke candidly about her very real concerns about the future of immigration for Manitoba.

The Minister began her address with a self evident truth about how provincial immigration has helped our community: “For the last 12 years the Philippines has been the largest source country through the Manitoba Provincial Nominee Program.” There are over 60,000 Filipinos in Winnipeg, thanks to the Province’s efforts in attracting newcomers and settling them here. The Minister said that the federal provincial disagreement about who should control settlement services is, “not a political partisan issue, not about how you mark a ballot. This is much bigger; this is about how we grow our economy.” Minister Melnick praised the PC government of then Premier Gary Filmon as the ones who had the vision to negotiate the first provincial nominee program in the country. The PC government wanted to improve the economic wellbeing of the province by taking a firsthand responsibility for the recruitment and settlement of newcomers to Manitoba and the four-term NDP provincial government has continued this work.

Since the signing of the Canada-Manitoba Immigration Agreement in 1996, our nominee program has been instrumental in bringing over 100,000 newcomers to the province and the Minister was proud to announce that we retain over 84% of all nominees. Last year alone 16,000 newcomers arrived in our province, the largest number since 1946. Manitoba, which was described in the mid-1990s as a “newcomer have not province,” a place to leave, but has become a place where newcomers stay and help build a stronger Manitoba. She spoke about the “beautiful symphony” of newcomers arriving from 130 different countries and speaking 120 different languages. The Minister spoke about the economic growth of rural centres like Altona, Steinbach, Morden and Brandon. Manitoba has become the provincial model for a successful immigration program.

Minister Melnick went on to explain that the Manitoba Provincial Nominee Program and the settlement services are “Integral. They are not separate from each other.” We now have 200-plus grass roots settlement service agencies that provide the language training and settlement supports, like job finding and professional re-entry that support the integration of newcomers into the Manitoba economy. “We have built a localized model”, the Minister said proudly, “We know it works.” In Manitoba we have a continuum of services. The Minister used the following phrase to describe settlement service inside the province: “You are so welcome. How can we help you?”

The settlement services are included in an annex to the Canada-Manitoba Immigration Agreement and the two levels of government have been in touch with each other since the original signing. Yet without warning, roughly two to four weeks ago the federal government announced it’s independent decision to take back settlement services. Minister Melnick stated there was “No warning, no consultation, no discussion about budgets or quality of service delivery but rather a surprise announcement” that the federal government was taking back control over settlement service delivery in the province. The Minister and many in attendance were left to wonder: “If it ain’t broke, why fix it?”

What is the federal government proposing to do with settlement services inside the province? First, they have given a one-year time frame before they put their plan into place. The Minister’s understanding is that the federal government is now tendering out a national service to a for-profit agency that will provide a standard service across the country. This would replace the 200 plus grass roots not-for-profit agencies now in operation inside Manitoba. Minister Melnick characterized the federal approach as “cookie cutter…where one size fits all.” The connection with the local communities will be lost. In place of the current Manitoba model, which is envied across the country as the best, we will be left with a “race to the bottom.”

What is the Manitoba government doing about the unilateral action of the federal government? Minister Melnick introduced a motion in the Manitoba legislature that asked members from all parties to join together in condemning the action? All NDP and Liberal members agreed while the current PC membership opposed on party lines.

Minister Melnick assured those in attendance that while the door of her government is open for discussion, the federal government has done nothing to signal an intention to change or even discuss the issue.

In response to questions from the audience Minister Melnick did go further in describing the many changes being made at the federal level in immigration. She cited the example of the November 2011 moratorium on the sponsorship of parents, the recent cancellation of health benefits for refugee claimants inside Canada, and the upcoming July requirement for a minimum English language proficiency as examples of arbitrary actions taken by the department of immigration without consultation; without public debate. She also addressed the question that was on everyone’s mind. What about the Manitoba Provincial Nominee Program? Minister Melnick said ominously that in the last two week the Saskatchewan nominee program was altered by the federal department: “You ask me if the PNP is safe, I can’t tell you that.”

What can the local Filipino community do? This became the focus of a question period as well as an impromptu meeting that followed the end of the forum and departure of the elected MLAs in attendance who included Minister Flor Marcelino, Minister Christine Melnick, and MLA’s Melanie Smyth, Mohinder Saran and Ted Marcelino. Community members expressed real concerns about the actions of the Harper government, with misgivings about their Reform party roots and anti-immigration sentiments. Some spoke about their opposition to arbitrary minimum levels of English language proficiency and the imposition of IELTS. Others spoke about the need to mobilize as a community and respond as Filipino residents of Manitoba. The spokesperson from the Filipino Nurses Association talked about the effectiveness of a group response and people power. The common sentiment is to engage the entire 60,000-strong Filipino population through various organizations or faith groups. This is an interesting time and also the opportunity for the Filipino community to rise up and exercise their political power. There is no doubt that Prime Minister Harper wants to remain in office and protests are one way of reminding him that earlier majority governments, such as that of Prime Minister Mulroney, can be kicked out from office for unpopular policies or practices.

There is so much that the current federal government is doing to change immigration that it is hard to keep up. The fears that were expressed, first by the Minister and later by the attendees are well taken. It appears that the Harper government is engaged in a one-way discussion: their far right agenda or the highway. Are they racist in inspiration, more Reform minded than Conservative or anti-immigration? These are not my words but those in attendance, some of whom voted Conservative in the last federal election. We should be concerned about the unilateral decision to take over settlement services because it is only one indication of the lack of regard that the current federal government has for immigration in general, and Manitoba in particular. As a province we have proven that our provincial model works well and now we must unite to defend it.

Michael Scott BA (Hon), MA, is a 30-year veteran of Canada Immigration and the Manitoba Provincial Nominee Program who works as an immigration associate with R.B. Global Immigration Consultants Ltd. He can be reached at 838 Ellice Avenue in Winnipeg, (204) 783-7326 or (204) 227-0292. E-mail: mscott.ici@gmail.com

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