Door to Canada is still open: top envoy

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 July, 2012, 12:00am

Canada's top diplomat yesterday insisted the welcome mat was still out for Hongkongers amid a host of immigration reforms now underway.

Visiting Hong Kong at the start of a swing through the region, Foreign Minister John Baird spoke of the importance of ongoing Asian immigration to Canada's social and economic well-being, and insisted his government had brought 'an unprecedented commitment to immigration'.

'We are reforming the system to make it better,' he said, when asked what message he had to locals concerned at recent changes, which have included the temporary suspension of applications from investment migrants as well as parents and grandparents of Canadian residents wanting to resettle.

'Immigrants from Hong Kong - from the 70s to the 90s to today - continue to be a great part of our country,' he said, adding that immigration was vital 'to the future prosperity of Canada'.

'I would be very surprised if the Hong Kong numbers didn't stay the same or even increase,' he said in an interview after he became the first senior foreign official to meet new Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying.

A halt on applications from so-called 'Federal investors' was announced on June 28, with officials offering no specific timeline on when it might be lifted. A halt of up to two years on applications from parents and grandparents was announced in November of last year, also to clear backlogs - a measure eased by the announcement of a new visa to allow extended visits for up to two years.

The changes have alarmed some in Hong Kong, where a recent study found more than 295,000 Hongkongers also hold Canadian citizenship - with 7.8 per cent of households having at least one Canadian citizen.

While Hong Kong migration has eased after the pre-handover booms of the 1980s and 1990s, nearly 14,000 Hongkongers were issued permanent Canadian residency between 2001 and 2010. The visa office of the local consulate is preparing 16,000 permanent residency visas this year alone, including to applicants not just from Hong Kong, but also the mainland, Macau and Taiwan.

Baird said he had a 'good meeting' with Leung and was impressed with the new leader.

'I guess what I wanted to impress upon him was the importance Canada places not just on relations with China, but particularly with Hong Kong,' he said.

In a wide-ranging political discussion with Leung, Baird said he offered Canadian assistance in Hong Kong's move towards universal suffrage in 2017, saying that, as a former colony, his nation carried none of the baggage attached to Britain or the US.

'We come with more of a clean slate.' He said the pair acknowledged that Leung had taken office in a challenging environment.

'The Beijing dynamic makes it much more complex,' he said. While many pre-handover fears had proved unfounded, Baird said, 'there are great expectations and Canada wants to support those great expectations'.

The diplomat also spoke of the values of 'liberal democracy', including the rule of law and freedom.