OTTAWA - People seeking to bring parents or grandparents to settle in Canada will have to have higher incomes and agree to financially support them longer starting next year.
These changes come as part of a revamp of the family reunification program announced Friday by Immigration Minister Jason Kenney.
The program was overhauled as a result of a backlog of applications that had neared 165,000 with a wait time of almost eight years when the government stopped accepting new applications in 2011.
The backlog is now on track to be halved by 2014 so the government is reopening the program in January and will take 5,000 applications next year.
At the same time, a 10-year, multiple-entry visa for parents and grandparents will become a permanent fixture of the immigration system.
Kenney said the changes are not just about the backlog.
"We have a choice: we can choose to have a program for extended family reunification or not," he told a news conference in Mississauga, Ont., on Friday.
"As a government, we choose to have such a program. We choose to have such a program in a way that corresponds to our fiscal limits as a country, the limits in our health-care system."
Government data suggests that about three per cent of sponsored parents or grandparents go on social assistance, a number that climbs to over 20 per cent once their sponsor no longer has to repay those costs.
Meanwhile, the average age of an applicant is 65 years old and nearly 44 per cent of all health-care money is spent on people over that age.
So those seeking to sponsor parents or grandparents will now have to have an income that's 30 per cent above the low-income threshold and prove it by submitting three years of income tax assessments.
They'll also have to agree to cover any welfare or health-care costs not covered by medicare for parents or grandparents for 20 years, instead of the current 10-year undertaking.
The parent and grandparent program has also allowed people to sponsor siblings, if they were considered a "dependent child."
The new program will lower the age ceiling and tighten the rules for who may be considered a "dependent child," and remove a provision which allowed full-time students to qualify, no matter what their age.
"Families say to me they want to bring their parents to Canada not to be a burden to Canadian taxpayers but apparently a large and growing number actually do end up being a burden," Kenney said.
"This is not reasonable."
But the NDP critic for immigration says the government is inventing a drain on the public purse that doesn't exist when it comes to parents and grandparents who've been sponsored to come to Canada.
"These kinds of barriers are very creative ways, and not-so-creative, of basically saying family reunification is not where Canada is at right now," Jinny Sims said.
"And if it is, it's only for those who are very wealthy and not for everybody."
In this economy, it's unreasonable to expect people to have the same income level for three years in a row, Sims pointed out.
And meanwhile, the government is discounting the help parents and grandparents provide young immigrant families, she said.
"The Conservatives are always talking about families," Sims said.
"This begs the question — whose families are they talking about?"