Rami Kassem, right, and his wife, Mona Aida, in the Cabin Radio studio in January 2019. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
A Yellowknife woman’s attempt to sponsor her parents’ bid to live in Canada failed for the seventh straight year when the country’s annual applications process ended after just six minutes.
The online system for sponsoring immigration of parents or grandparents opened at 10am MT on Monday. By 10:06am, the website advised users this year’s quota of 27,000 expressions of interest (applications which have yet to be reviewed) had been received – and refused to accept any more.
Thousands of people complained to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) in the aftermath. Rami Kassem and his wife, Mona, were among those left devastated as their bid to sponsor Mona’s parents failed once again.
Kassem said IRCC’s website suggested the form would take 10 minutes to complete. He and Mona, who prepared meticulously for the 10am start time, finished it in what they thought must be record time.
“We filled out the application and after six minutes, we hit ‘submit’. We were so happy that we were going to make it,” Rami, who co-owns Yellowknife’s Javaroma coffee chain, told Cabin Radio.
“I didn’t sleep last night, I was praying all night, I was up early getting everything ready,” said Mona.
“For a second, I thought I was going to be the first application to be submitted.
“It was a shock to us,” she said, when a message appeared announcing the quota had already been reached. “Closed after six minutes? I still can’t believe that. I just cried.”
Listen to our full interview with Rami and Mona, and a response from NWT MP Michael McLeod, on Cabin Radio’s Lunchtime News podcast for January 29, 2019.
Rami and Mona have lived through seven years of the same fate, through various iterations of the same sponsorship program under both Conservative and Liberal governments.
Numbers of applicants accepted have increased in recent years, and Ottawa briefly tried a random-ballot system instead of the first-come, first-served approach currently in place – but the application for Mona’s parents has still not even had a chance for Canadian immigration officials to open it, never mind approve or reject it.
“We are eligible. Both me and my husband are working. We just have no luck with both systems the government used,” said Mona.
“My parents don’t know yet. They are at home, they don’t know their application didn’t get submitted. I don’t know what to tell them.
“When I imagine my mom’s face and my dad’s face … they were waiting for good news. ‘Yes, everything is good, stay with us.’
“Unfortunately it is not the case, and they will have to leave.”
‘We are their only family’
Canada will review each of the 27,000 accepted submissions on Monday, approving or rejecting them, until a cap of 20,000 successful, completed applications is reached.
Mona’s 69-year-old father and 65-year-old mother have spent most of the past decade in a form of immigration purgatory, using a series of extended so-called ‘super visas’ to stay in Canada for much of each year – but then having to return home for several months at a time while filing new visa applications.
Rami estimates their flight costs each year, and the costs of renewing healthcare, together come to some $12,000 annually.
Mona is their only child and they have no relatives outside Canada. “We are the only family they have,” she said.
Michael McLeod, the Liberal MP for the Northwest Territories, told Cabin Radio he agrees the system can be improved.
“When you are oversubscribed, people are going to be disappointed,” he said.
“We could retool the system so people who have been in the line-up for a long time get some priority. There have been a number of changes, and maybe there have to be more.
“I guess that’s going to be revisited and maybe we’ll look at going back to the lottery system. That might be fairer.”
McLeod, however, rejected the suggestion that an application process in part reliant on computer literacy and typing speed is unfair.
“No, I don’t agree with that,” he said. “I think everybody has the same opportunity.”
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada did not directly acknowledge an interview request from Cabin Radio, but did copy and paste a statement which did not address questions we asked.
The statement, attributed to spokesperson Mathieu Genest, sought to contrast the current process with the previous Conservative government’s approach.
“Making sure families can be reunited with their loved ones is a pillar of our immigration policy. Which is why we quadrupled the intake of applications to 20,000 from 5,000 under the Conservative government,” Genest wrote, claiming the Liberals “inherited a backlog of over 167,000 cases under the previous government.”
Genest said the current backlog is below 25,000, and processing times have come down to under two years from a high of up to eight years.
“Under the Conservatives, the process favoured those who could pay courier companies to submit [their] application at local offices,” the statement read.
“After extensive consultations and hearing directly from Canadians across the country, we implemented this first-come, first-serve online system to ensure it was fair and created safeguards to ensure the system is not abused.”
Genest said “anti-bot features” were used to ensure applications were legitimate, though Rami and Mona believe some people may have gamed the system by very quickly submitting applications that were incomplete or incorrect in order to gain a ‘ticket’ and a place among the 27,000 – and then using an edit feature, later, to go back and fix their information.
Genest said more than 100,000 individuals attempted to access the form on Monday before it was removed after the quota had been reached.
“We have received the maximum number of submissions for 2019. We understand that those who were not able to make a submission are disappointed,” he said.
“We remain committed to reuniting families with their loved ones and will continue to ensure client service remains at the centre of all our programs.”
Genest did not address questions from Cabin Radio that dealt with potential gaming of the application system, whether alternative processes are being considered, and why computer literacy and typing speed should be factors when applying to bring your parents or grandparents to live in Canada.
Government ‘can do better’
Rami wants Ottawa to consider dividing the quota by province and territory in future years, to ensure all areas of Canada have an opportunity to secure some places.
“I’d like to ask the immigration minister to spread them all over the provinces. Because us, we live in the Northwest Territories, we need people to come here,” he said.
“Give us something. Then if I’m not accepted next year, I know the next year I’ll be accepted. [Right now] it might be just Ontario.”
McLeod, the MP, said he agreed with that suggestion but the federal department has yet to be persuaded.
“I do bring that forward and I think that’s a good idea, but I haven’t heard anything that indicates they would accept that,” he said.
“We have a small population and demand is huge across the country for this program, but I will continue to advocate for that.
“I think we can do better,” McLeod added, referring to federal support for immigration to the NWT in general.
“There is still a lot of improvement that’s required. We still don’t have a good settlement program [for the NWT]. We’ve heard a lot from different people … my office works non-stop to help with files.
“But at the end of the day, it’s the department that makes decisions.”
Mona told Cabin Radio she hopes the federal government can find a way to “make it easy and fair for everyone,”
“I’m sure they have the data – who has been applying every year, and for how many years. ‘OK, this person needs to get their parents, so let’s give them a chance.’
“Some people are lucky, I’m not lucky… then what? Just give me a chance.”