AG: Immigrant mentorship program a flop
'Poorly defined' scheme had problems from the start, report says
By DAVID JACKSON
The Chronicle Herald
Wed. Jun 11 – 4:09 PM
Immigrants who went through a troubled provincial immigration program could each receive thousands in refunds, Immigration Minister Len Goucher announced this afternoon.
The news came just hours after auditor general Jacques Lapointe submitted an interim report scathing in its assessment of the economic stream of the provincial nominee program and government secrecy.
Under the program, immigrants paid $130,500 to be fast-tracked through the immigration process into Canada. The biggest chunk of the fee was $100,000 for at least a six-month mentorship at a Nova Scotia business to learn about doing business here.
The immigrant was supposed to receive at least $20,000, and the business could collect up to $80,000.
The government last fall had offered $100,000 refunds to immigrants who hadnt signed mentorship deals under the program. But then many of the more than 200 who had signed deals complained about the experience they had, and felt they should also get a refund.
Mr. Goucher said their argument won him over, especially since it was coming from people who stayed in the province the prime objective of the nominee program.
When you look at it, you have to scratch your head and sort of ask, Well, why wouldnt we if theyre still living here? Mr. Goucher said at Province House.
The refunds would come out of fees paid by immigrants who didnt settle here, Mr. Goucher said. The immigrants fees are in a trust account that now totals about $69 million.
Mr. Goucher estimated the new refund option will be available to about 120 people, and theyll receive about $8 million.
He said hed like to wait and see Mr. Lapointes final report due in early fall before launching the program, but will start offering the refunds by November, even if the report isnt done.
Opposition critics whod called for such refunds said it doesnt make any sense to wait.
Its a fairly empty gesture at the moment because there are no details around the program, Liberal immigration critic Diana Whalen said.
New Democrat immigration critic Leonard Preyra said the government seems to be making it up as they go along and criticized the delay.
Its a stall tactic, in part because they dont know how many people are involved, they havent established the criteria for whos going to be eligible or where the money is going to be coming from, Mr. Preyra said.
The economic stream of the nominee program was a pilot project designed and run by private company Cornwallis Financial Corp. The province awarded an untendered contract to the company in December 2002.
The province ended the deal with Cornwallis in the summer of 2006. Cornwallis sued the province later that year.
Mr. Lapointe said in his report that there were “significant deficiencies” in the program.
“In its early stages, program objectives were poorly defined,” he said. “Although certain objectives were eventually documented, these either were not or could not be evaluated.”
The report notes only 210 of 532 economic nominees who landed in Canada took part in mentorships. Mr. Lapointe said it will be difficult for government to know ultimately how successful the program was in getting people to settle in Nova Scotia, and who used it merely as a quick entry to Canada.
The report said nominees signed a release promising to provide the province with their addresses within 30 days of arriving in Canada and any changes of address for two years after landing. But Mr. Lapointe said both Immigration and Economic Development told his office they had no way to enforce that requirement.
“There is a risk that the economic stream may have functioned as an entryway to other parts of Canada for anyone with sufficient resources,” he said in the report. “In the future, it is not clear how the province will assess the success of its nominee initiatives if it has no means to track immigrants to determine whether they settled in Nova Scotia.”
The report is peppered with references to how difficult Mr. Lapointe found it to get information from government, particularly the Office of Immigration and Justice Department, and Treasury and Policy Board.
Those departments classified some material as confidential based on solicitor-client privilege or advice to cabinet. Provincial law says that the auditor general is supposed to get a look at any information he requests.
“We were missing key information and were unable to obtain satisfactory audit evidence through other sources,” the report said in reference to assessing the contract with Cornwallis.
Mr. Lapointe wrote that Treasury and Policy Board said they do not believe the withheld documentation was necessary for the Office of the Auditor General to do its work.
“This decision was not theirs to make,” he wrote.
In their response, the departments of Immigration and Economic Development said they had every right to keep documents from Mr. Lapointe.
“We categorically disagree with the Auditor General's insistence that the Province has no authority upon which to withhold these documents,” they said.
The Office of Immigration said it turned over more than 20,000 records.
Premier Rodney MacDonald defended his government's withholding of the documents.
“We are more open and transparent than any other government previous to our government,” he said. “We are in line with what's happening across the country, and on those ones, we agree to disagree with the auditor-general,” Mr. MacDonald said.
Mr. Steele accused the government of restricting access to documents to protect Mr. MacDonald, a cabinet minister since 1999, and the province's first immigration minister in 2005.
“That is the person who has the most to lose because he's been associated with the immigration file right from the beginning,” he said. “It seems clear that the government is doing what it is doing in order to protect the premier and his reputation.