N.S. immigration officials grilled over business mentoring program
By John Lewandowski,
THE CANADIAN PRESS
October 26, 2007
HALIFAX – Nova Scotia immigration officials were on the hotseat for over two hours Friday as they tried to explain a controversial immigrant nominee program that has prompted a lawsuit and a government offer to hand back $60 million in application fees.
Several changes have already been made to a business mentoring program that was created in 2002 and which charged each applicant $130,000 in exchange for a work term with a Nova Scotia company.
Some participants have complained that their work experience was less than they expected and they're questioning the value of their participation.
Companies that signed on to the mentorship rogram received $100,000 for each immigrant but were required to pay them at $20,000 in salary.
“It didn't happen in the way the program parameters were intended to happen,”Elizabeth Mills, executive director of the Office of Immigration, said during a news conference where officials were questioned by reporters for about two hours.
“It's only recently that a lot of these things have been coming to light because, quite frankly, the information we were getting back was that things were OK and, in the cases where they were not, we were taking corrective action,” she said.
Questions have been raised about government oversight and whether anyone was checking to see if the program was actually meeting the needs of applicants or the companies being paid to take them on.
Mills said her office did an internal review and forwarded results to cabinet but details have not been made public.
Cabinet has since offered to refund the application fees to about 600 immigrants, but 203 others who have completed an internship, or signed a contract to start one, are not eligible.
The mentorship program was scrapped last year after the province dumped Cornwallis Financial Corp., which had received an untendered contract to run it, and all the files were transferred to the province's Office of Immigration.
Cornwallis has since launched a lawsuit against the province but there's no indication of when or if the parties will go to court.
Mills said they had no way of gauging the unfolding situation because there were very few matches between would-be immigrants and local employers until 2005, when her office was formally established and given a budget.
“As more matches happened, more issues and difficulties arose and the challenges around managing the program became more apparent,” she said.
“We became aware that there were some situations where there was no actual employment contract or business mentorship. That was where we really at first became concerned.”
The money being paid to participating companies was made in two installments and in some cases has been withheld because of complaints some immigrants didn't get the promised work.
“We think we know of six situations . . . and we are in various stages of investigation to determine what happened.”
Mills said they have also heard from many nominees who told them their experiences were positive.
Companies that participated in the program included car dealerships, automotive-supply companies, fast-food restaurants, a gas station and a laundromat as well as a number of finance companies and technology firms.
New Democrats demanded Friday that government release the review prepared for cabinet by the Office of Immigration.
NDP critic Leonard Preyra said it troubles him to think the Tory government would hang out senior bureaucrats to take “take the heat” for problems in the problem.
He said if anyone should explain what went wrong, it should be Premier Rodney MacDonald.
“It's quite cowardly. This was a political decision,” he said.
“By 2006 we knew there was a problem and we know who the minister was at that time. It was Rodney MacDonald and he should have taken steps at that time to correct those problems.
Liberal critic Diana Whelan said it's clear no one was keeping tabs on the program.
“It's just so clear that it was mismanaged from the outset. That it didn't have any checks and balances in it and I think we owe an apology to the immigrants that have come in and have had unsuccessful mentorships.”
Whelan is demanding that the auditor general take an immediate look at the trust fund that was set up to hold the program payments.
“There are a lot of questions about how it's been expended, how much is sitting there and how much will never be claimed.”