CHARLOTTETOWN, P.E.I. - P.E.I.’s Economic Development and Tourism Minister Chris Palmer says the decision to scrap a scandal-plagued immigration program came down to low retention.
The government of P.E.I. announced on Wednesday morning it would no longer accept applicants to the entrepreneurship stream of the provincial nominee program.
The program allowed potential immigrants to gain permanent residency after paying a $200,000 deposit as long as they established a business.
This stream accounted for the majority of successful PNP applicants over the last five years but has been plagued by a number of scandals, including investigations by the Canada Border Services Agency into two alleged immigration fraud rings.
A separate labour stream of the province’s PNP, has not aroused controversy. More than 2,000 immigrants have successfully obtained permanent residency under the labour stream since 2012.
Another component, known as Work Permit, of the business stream of the PNP will still be open for applicants. This component will not require a deposit, and applicants will receive permanent residency only after they have remained on the Island for over one year.
“It hasn't really been meeting the expectations of Islanders and it hasn't been meeting our expectations internally to get the results that we're looking for, which would be to have folks settle on P.E.I., make contributions to the economy and the culture," Palmer said in an interview.
A 2017 report by the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council found that P.E.I. had the lowest immigrant retention rates in the Atlantic region.
In May, the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) charged two owners of the Sherwood Motel, Ping Zhong and her brother Yi Zhong, with multiple counts of aiding and abetting misrepresentation under the federal Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. CBSA has claimed that 566 applicants under P.E.I.’s PNP had listed the motel as their home address, to make it appear they were residing in Canada.
Then last month, the CBSA revealed it was investigating another couple who are alleged to have run a similar ring involving addresses of convenience. A search warrant filed as part of the investigation stated that 466 PNP applicants, who all obtained permanent residency, listed three Charlottetown homes owned by the couple as their place of residence.
Palmer said the investigations were a factor in the decision to scrap the program but were not the primary reason.
"It's serious and we're taking it serious. We're helping border services with anything and everything that they need. But, it's seven charges. So that wouldn't be enough out of the whole overall volume of folks that have gone through," Palmer said.
Opposition leader James Aylward welcomed the decision, calling it a long overdue step.
“We're one of the last jurisdictions in Canada that actually had an immigration program that asked for a deposit," Aylward said.
Aylward believes the reason the PNP was not changed sooner was due to the revenue the province has obtained from unreturned deposits. In 2016-17, a total of 177 people did not get their refundable deposit back.
“Essentially the reason is greed. There is no other way to describe it. We've had a government that was addicted to the default deposits and not true immigration," Aylward said.
Green Leader Peter Bevan-Baker also said changes to the program were overdue.
“We’ve all known that the retention rates were awful. The rest of us have been calling for a review for years,” Bevan-Baker said.
“The way the thing was set up, it just invited abuse and it invited fraud.”
But some immigrants who have arrived on the Island believe the PNP controversy has created a harmful stigma.
He Ke, who prefers the name “HK”, arrived in P.E.I. under the business stream of the provincial nominee program last year.
He runs a photography studio, APEI Photography, out of an office on Queen Street. His clients have included a number of prominent restaurants and business in the downtown area.
Islanders may have seen his pictures showcasing some of the entries in this year’s Burger Love contest for restaurants such as Mavor’s, the Brick House and the Pilot House.
HK decided to set up a photo project documenting immigrant entrepreneurs on P.E.I., which can be found on Facebook. He said media accounts of the PNP have tended to cast many of these immigrants in an overwhelmingly negative light.
"I know many PNP immigrants, just like me, who came here, live here, have family here, have businesses here,” HK said.
“We are normal people. We are not very rich guys, we are not millionaires. We are not bad guys.”