COVID-19 might encourage more people with working holiday visas to apply for Canadian permanent residency

Bryony Lau, Dalla Lana Fellow, University of Toronto
·6 min read

Overseas holidays and stable employment have become a thing of the past for many people since the pandemic began. Borders shut, planes languished on runways and hotels emptied. Major economies shuddered under strict lockdowns.

But some young people holding Canadian working holiday visas were undeterred. They were still allowed to enter — or remain if they were already here. The program allows those under 35 to spend a year or two travelling around Canada, while being able to work as much as they need to get by.

Due to the pandemic, the number of valid working holiday work permits as of late 2020 was down by two-thirds compared to the year before. But a portion of these visitors may be thinking of staying permanently — a boon to Canada at a time when immigration numbers have plummeted.

A once in a lifetime opportunity

Gabriella De Candia is an Australian who was scheduled to fly from Sydney to Vancouver days after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic in March 2020. She tried to change her plans but it was impossible to change or get a refund for her ticket.

The easiest solution, she thought, was to just get on the plane, even though it seemed crazy. “What am I doing? Like, I’m moving overseas in the middle of a pandemic,” De Candia recalls thinking. “Am I going to die?”

The logic and benefits of the Canadian working holiday visa program unravelled as the pandemic took hold. Holidaying in a country paralyzed by COVID-19? Finding a job when Canadian unemployment rates had more than doubled? It all seemed impossible.

But the fact remained: a working holiday visa is a once in a lifetime opportunity. And that’s what pushed De Candia to come.

Mount Steven reflects into pond in Field, British Columbia
British Columbia is a popular spot for many on Canadian working holiday visas because of the stunning scenery, like Mount Steven in Field, B.C. (Shutterstock)

When going home isn’t an option

For the first couple months after arriving, De Candia was unsure whether to stick it out. During the first lockdown, she crashed in a hostel surrounded by others struggling to get a flight out. It wasn’t how she’d imagined her time in Canada.

“I was spending my own money instead of earning money,” she says.

By the summer, she was feeling better about her decision. She headed to Squamish, B.C., with friends to hike and soak up the outdoors. In the fall, De Candia finally found work in the film industry as she’d hoped.

Flash forward a year, she’s happy with her choice, even though it’s hard not to be jealous of friends and family in Sydney. Their lives are nearly back to normal thanks to Australia’s aggressive tactics to curb the spread of COVID-19, which includes strictly limiting the number of international arrivals to a few thousand per week.

That means De Candia can’t readily go back even if she wanted to. But some Australians don’t want to go home.

From being stuck, to making home

In October 2020, Vishal Teckchandani moved to Brownlee, Sask., a small village (population 55) one hour northwest of Regina. He’d received a visa almost a year before but put off coming. The pandemic tipped the scales.

“I made a conscious decision that life is finite,” Teckchandani says.

By mid-2020, Canada had changed the rules for working holidays and he could only enter if he already had a job lined up. That’s how he ended up in Brownlee; a friend found him a marketing job at a distillery.

Small-town life for Teckchandani has been a revelation. He watches the train rumble through every day. He met his girlfriend. He made friends, and the commute to work is one minute. “In blizzards, I drive 30 seconds and I’m there,” he explains. “Unless I get stuck and I have to shovel the snow.”

Teckchandani loves Canada so much that he’s already decided to stay. He recently began the process of applying for permanent residency.

From working holiday to permanent residency

It used to be unusual that someone on a working holiday visa would apply for permanent residency. A recent evaluation of the program found that only seven per cent of participants from 2013 to 2017 became permanent residents.

Historically, working holidays were reciprocal exchange programs: foreign youth would come to Canada and Canadian youth would go abroad. It was not intended as a path to immigration, notes Naomi Alboim, an expert on Canadian immigration.

Teckchandani is competitive under Canada’s points-based immigration system, which rewards youth, advanced degrees, fluency in English or French and work experience. The stereotypical image of a working holiday visa holder — an Australian or New Zealander working a couple seasons at Whistler or Big White — is less so, says Alboim.

But after immigration numbers last year fell to their lowest level since 1998, the government announced that it is aiming for 401,000 new immigrants in 2021. Given border restrictions, the government is hoping temporary residents, including those on working holidays, will apply.

Not everyone is interested. De Candia is itching to move on and thinks it’s hard for people who freelance in the film industry like her to qualify. “I’m here for two years, and maybe that’s enough,” she says.

Changes to the program makes choosing Canada easier

Gemma Taylor, administrator of a Facebook group that helps crowdsource solutions to working holiday issues for its 21,000 members, notes that young people who were already inclined to stay may think about permanent residency earlier than they might have otherwise.

It’s a long process, as Jordan Vannier knows. He first came to Canada from France in 2014 and stayed for a year in Calgary, Alta. He found work at The Roasterie, a coffee shop in Kensington, in downtown Calgary. He made friends, learned English and was just starting to feel comfortable when his visa ran out.

Luckily, due to changes to the program, he became eligible for another working holiday and came back in 2017. “It was not for the adventure anymore,” he says. “It was the feeling of there is something for me over there.”

He settled back into Calgary quickly and by summer 2018 he started the paperwork for permanent residency. “Living with a visa that has an end is a weird thing because on a day-to-day basis you feel extremely free,” he explains. “But the thing is that end date is coming closer and closer day by day.”

Knowing he could stay made it easier to do things he wanted. In 2019, Vannier started his own coffee shop with two friends. His application was still pending when the borders closed last year, but he never thought seriously about going back to France.

In February, his permanent residency came through. “Thanks for choosing Canada,” the letter read.

This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Bryony Lau, University of Toronto.

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Bryony Lau does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.