OTTAWA — The federal immigration minister says he's concerned by allegations that foreign students in Prince Edward Island have been pressured to return a portion of their wages to business immigrants, but isn't planning major changes to the program.
Ahmed Hussen said in Ottawa Wednesday he's expecting the Liberal provincial government to take action on the issue, but also said in general he's pleased by a provincial immigration system that is being criticized by some immigration lawyers as lacking sufficient oversight.
"We are aware of it, we are absolutely concerned and are opposed to people taking advantage of international students," Hussen said outside cabinet.
"We urge all of the effected parties to contact the P.E.I. provincial nominee program folks to deal with this and we'll do whatever we can to help the province."
On Nov. 26, The Canadian Press reported on three international students who described how they were required to return a portion of their pay to owners of businesses set up under the ownership stream of the provincial nominee program.
In one case, a student said he was fired when he refused, and in two other cases, the students said they agreed to give back a portion of their income in cash.
All of the students are international students from China, and they were concerned about repercussions on their current employment prospects on the Island if identified. The Canadian Press also interviewed a student who said he is paid what he's owed in full.
The provincial nominee businesses are set up after the would-be immigrants commit to a minimum investment of $150,000 and annual spending of at least $75,000.
If companies in the "ownership stream" operate for an agreed period of time, usually a year, the province may refund the $150,000 business escrow deposit.
The province has said the program has gradually helped attract a fresh wave of much-needed people to the Island and is resulting in some success stories, even if last year over half of all the 269 applicants forfeited their deposit and never opened a business at all.
Critics have argued the system has a poor track record in retaining immigrants, and encourages business immigrants to use the Island as a side-door entry point to larger Canadian centres. Meanwhile, the province collected $18 million last year in forfeitures from program participants — roughly equivalent to half this year's increase in infrastructure spending.
Heath MacDonald, the minister of Economic Development in Prince Edward Island, has said in an interview that his department wants to hear directly from any students experiencing the alleged abuses.
His department says it will retain their anonymity up until the point they might be called to testify.
His office has committed to setting up a tip line for students and others to call if they are facing abuses under the provincial system.
Hussen said he doesn't have wider concern with provincial nominee programs, despite the criticism that too many applicants are going through the motions of creating a business.
He said his concern is with the alleged mistreatment of international students.
"It's them taking advantage of vulnerable international students and we don't want that," he said.
"The provincial nominee program has been great for all provinces. It's the key economic immigration program that spreads the benefits of immigration all across the country."
The minister also said Ottawa is planning to increase the number of people in the provincial business programs over the next two years.
"It's a great program. It works well. There are instances where it's misused and we take that very seriously. We work closely with the provinces to make sure that's addressed and from my understanding they're taking action to address that."
- By Stephanie Levitz in Ottawa and Michael Tutton in Halifax.
The Canadian Press