An illegal immigration scheme targeting Atlantic Canada could hamper efforts to bring more newcomers to the region, says a leading Maritime immigration lawyer.
A CBC News investigation revealed an illegal job-offer scam that can fast track the route to permanent residency in Canada for immigrants in exchange for a hefty price and a willingness to work a few months for no pay.
Halifax lawyer Lee Cohen said fraud can discourage the creation of innovative immigration programs aimed at bringing newcomers to a region keen to see population growth and address labour shortages.
"If it gets abused in this kind of way, and this is an egregious abuse, it discourages the designers of the program from coming up with something creative and important," Cohen told CBC News.
The scheme has targeted the Atlantic Immigration Pilot Project, which was launched two years to help fill gaps in local labour markets. Employers apply to find workers for positions they cannot otherwise fill and those who immigrate through the program are granted permanent residency within six months.
But so-called "ghost" agencies are taking advantage of weaknesses in the program. They convince immigrants to turn over sometimes tens of thousands of dollars, paying off select companies to hire the person for no pay or to simply forge payroll.
In one instance uncovered by CBC News, a recruiter requested a payment of $170,000 for a job at a Halifax-area daycare.
Cohen said he's dubious of the immigration consultant industry and called for greater regulation of the sector. The federal government launched the pilot program in 2017 but it's monitored at the provincial level.
He said there are many competent, honest consultants, but far too many looking to "fatten their pocketbook at the expense of the Canadian people and the system."
"I just think it needs much more aggressive attention from those designing the programs and those enforcing the programs," Cohen said.
Alex LeBlanc, executive director of the New Brunswick Multicultural Council, hopes the scam doesn't spell doom for the pilot program.
"It's a shame that our immigration system and the integrity of that is being called into question because we have many, many thousands of people coming to Canada and New Brunswick legally," LeBlanc told Shift New Brunswick.
While the CBC News investigation revealed how widespread the scheme is in the Atlantic provinces, both LeBlanc and Cohen said the vast majority of immigrants, including those under the pilot program, move through the proper channels.
LeBlanc is expecting the program to be tweaked in the year and a half left in the pilot stage.
"As you do in a pilot, you are continuously improving and I'm sure the different levels of government are looking closely at this and finding ways to close those gaps," he said.
The governments of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward have said they are aware of fraud and are taking actions to ensure the program's integrity.