Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) has introduced a new fee for open work permit applicants, which includes those hoping to participate in the federal working holiday visa program, a significant portion of Whistler's workforce.
CIC began collecting the new $100 fee on Feb. 21 in addition to an existing $150 participation fee. The fee applies only to open work permit applicants, rather than those with employer-specific work permits, which would include temporary foreign workers.
While the added cost shouldn't be prohibitive to applicants, it adds yet another layer of bureaucracy to an already convoluted application process, according to Whistler Immigration director Paul Girodo.
"These aren't poor people or economic refugees (participating in the working holiday visa program), so I don't see it as being unreasonable, I think it just annoys people," he said.
Several Whistler Immigration clients have been stymied by the updated International Mobility Program's complicated online application process, which involves a questionnaire portion that Girodo likened to "a choose-your-own adventure" book. Girodo also said the online application can generate vague and incomplete technical error messages and requires a technical savvy that is outside the capabilities of some applicants.
"It took us a fair amount of day-in, day-out investigation on exactly how the information flows before we were able to start giving advice to clients," Girodo noted. "So if it takes us, who deal with this day in and day out, some time to make sure we know exactly how the information flows and where the issues are, how's somebody who's done it once or twice in their life going to do it?"
Ottawa has said the new fee will be collected to offset the cost of new initiatives aimed at improving data collection on the role of open work permit holders in the Canadian labour market, as well as promotional costs to encourage open work permit holders to apply for permanent resident status.
The federal working holiday program has come under scrutiny recently after a private document surfaced in January outlining cabinet-level discussions between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander considering limits to the number of young workers in the country through International Experience Canada, which manages youth mobility agreements.
The major concern for the Harper regime is that Canada accepts far more young foreign workers each year than its partner countries — the program drew 58,094 foreign youth in 2012, compared to just 17,731 Canadians going abroad — and a December memo warned that those numbers could be "reduced significantly" starting in 2016. To that end, an earlier October document showed that top officials are considering cutting the number of youth workers from 24 countries, primarily in the EU, by 50 to 99 per cent, a potential move that sounded alarm bells in Whistler.
"This could have a significant impact on the workforce here," Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden said at the time.
The Whistler Chamber of Commerce, which estimates that up to 30 per cent of the resort workforce is made up of working holiday visa holders, warned of the possible consequences of scaling the program back.
"This is definitely a scary development," said Chamber CEO Val Litwin. "We're a seasonal resort, we have low measured unemployment and we struggle to fill key positions, so we need to have the working holiday visa stream as an option."
Ottawa temporarily closed the International Experience Program at the end of 2014 with worker quotas from several countries, including Australia, reached. Last month, the CIC announced it would re-open the program, although not to every participating nation.
"The program is slowly opening on a country-by-country basis now," explained Girodo. "CIC is giving little notice of country-specific opening dates, thus applicants have work permit timing issues, need extension requests... and are feeling general panic."