Liberals scrap controversial family reunification lottery, accepting more applications

A Canadian flag flies in front of the peace tower on Parliament Hill, Ottawa, Canada, December 4, 2015. Canada has experienced a rise in asylum seekers crossing its borders in recent months.

Justin Trudeau's Liberal government is dropping its controversial lottery system for reuniting immigrant families and moving to a first-come, first-served online system following backlash from frustrated sponsors.

On Monday, the federal government announced it will admit up to 20,500 parents and grandparents under its reunification program in 2019, and 21,000 in 2020.

To reach those targets, Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Canada will accept 20,000 parent and grandparent reunification applications next year, up from 17,000 this year and 10,000 in 2016.

Interested applicants will still have to fill out an interest to sponsor form online in the new year, but "instead of randomly selecting the sponsors to apply, we will invite them to submit an application to sponsor their parents and grandparents based on the order in which we receive their interest to sponsor forms," reads a press release.

Last year, more than 95,000 filled out the online form. From that pool of applicants, just 10,000 potential sponsors were randomly selected and sent an email inviting them to submit an application.

The lottery system was in itself an attempt to make the system more fair and transparent after complaints the process was skewed by geography and an applicant's ability to pay a lawyer or other representative to get to the head of the queues.

System was 'based on luck'

Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Minister Ahmed Hussen said the random selection process was a "dramatic" improvement compared to the previous system.

"It was not the wrong move. We improved on the really unfair system that we inherited," he told Power & Politics host Vassy Kapelos.

"The previous system included an unfair characteristic that if your postal code was closer to the processing centre you'd have better odds than the next person."

​Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel called the 2017 change a "total abdication of responsibility." The NDP's immigration critic Jenny Kwan said it was a "fiasco right from the get-go."

"Imagine reuniting with your family based on luck. That was our immigration policy. It was ludicrous back in 2017 when the government brought that in," Kwan said.

The lottery system was also criticized by potential sponsors. They sent in hundreds of pages of correspondence to Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen calling the random selection "cruel," and "heartless." 

"Previous to this lottery, my wife and I had just completed the whole immigration process file and were approved to begin … when you decided to change the entire system to a Vegas-like circus of random choice," reads one of the emails, obtained under access to information laws. 

The department said next year's change "will streamline access to the program and improve client experience."

Betsy Kane, an immigration lawyer based in Ottawa, said ditching both the lottery and in-person system is fair and politically astute.  

"At the end of the day, not only is that fair but appears to be fair. It also gives some certainty to people who are trying to access the system," she said.

"Minister Hussen is very in tune with the electorate and very in tune with his department."

The family reunification program has been plagued with massive backlogs in the past, as the number of applicants far exceeded the limited number of spots.The number dropped from a peak of 167,000 people, in 2011, to just under 26,000 people, in June 2018, according to the immigration department.

Kwan said she'd like to see the Liberal government ditch quotas for the parent and grandparent stream.

"Accepting more applications does not necessarily mean that there will be more people who will be allowed to come to Canada," she said.