Reports

March 12, 2024

A snapshot of Canadian immigration (Part 2): Pathways to permanent residency

Immigration is important to the culture, economy, and makeup of Canada and Alberta. But changes need to be made to our existing system to ensure it is a lasting source of strength.

This infographic is part of a larger body of work on immigration, with a focus on the role of immigration in economic growth. Our goal is to inform a strategy and process for immigration that is not just numbers-driven but prosperity-driven.

Read more about our Prosperity-Driven Immigration project here.

The Bottom Line

  • In 2022, the majority of Canada’s new immigrants attained permanent resident (PR) status through programs under the Economic Class (58%). The remainder were largely in the Family Class (22%) and the Refugee Class (17%).
  • Of Canada’s Economic Class immigrants, there was a 50/50 split between those who had previous work and/or study experience in Canada and those who did not. This means that businesses and post-secondary institutions play a significant role in the selection of new PRs.
  • Economic immigrants can enter Canada through any one of many different Pathways. These Pathways are dominated by programs that focus on specific workforce selection criteria. Programs also exist to bring in entrepreneurs and investors, but these are much smaller.

There’s a lot going on beneath the hood of Canada’s immigration system. When trying to navigate how the system works, it is easy to get caught failing to see the forest for the trees.

In this piece, we take a bird’s eye view of Canada’s immigration system. In alignment with our Prosperity-Driven Immigration project, we focus on the various pathways economic immigrants take to attain Permanent Resident (PR) status. To do so, we look at data from 2022 to get a sense of how the system works and who’s immigrating to Canada.

In 2022, Canada welcomed approximately 437,500 new PRs through three main immigration classes:

Economic Class

Family Class

Refugee Class

Other

255,685

0%

97,360

0%

74,340

0%

10,200

0%

About half of all new economic class permanent residents selected had prior experience living, working, and/or studying in Canada. 

Previous Experience in Canada: 127,715
Previous Experience in Canada: 127,965
0%

Those with prior Canadian experience have held the following permits:

0%

Of those with no prior Canadian experience, some are selected for their ability to contribute to the Canadian economy, and others aren’t:

Down Arrow
Down Arrow

Family Class

97,360

0%

Refugee Class

74,340

0%

Other

10,200

0%

Economic Class

255,685

0%

Of the new economic class permanent residents selected, not all have had prior experience living, working, and/or studying as a non-permanent resident in Canada. In 2022, those with and without prior experience in Canada were split very evenly:

Previous Experience in Canada: 127,715
0%

Those with prior Canadian experience have held the following permits:

Down Arrow
50% have prior experience in Canada.
Previous Experience in Canada: 127,965
0%

Of those with no prior Canadian experience, some are selected on their ability to contribute to the Canadian economy, and others aren’t:

Down Arrow
50% have no prior experience in Canada.
50% have prior experience in Canada.
50% have no prior experience in Canada.

For new PRs with prior Canadian experience, 54% had held both a temporary work permit and a study permit prior to selection. Another 37% had held only a work permit, and 9% held only a study permit. This means that about 45% of all economic immigrants had previously held a work permit.

Not all these individuals were selected primarily for their ability to contribute to the Canadian economy on their own merits. Many attain PR status through the successful application of a spouse or a parent who is selected for their own ability to contribute (called a principal economic immigrant).

For new PRs without prior experience in Canada, only 34% were principal economic immigrants. The rest were spouses/partners or dependents of a successful principal economic PR applicant, though all are categorized as economic immigrants, nonetheless.

Of note, the proportion of new PRs with prior Canadian work and/or study experience was higher than normal in 2022 because Canada’s pandemic-era immigration policy prioritized the selection of individuals already living, working, and studying in Canada.

That said, the long-term trend is clear: for over 20 years, selection criteria have increasingly favoured newcomers with prior Canadian experience. This means that Canadian employers and post-secondary institutions are playing a larger role in shaping the pathways to PR than ever before.

31% of all new immigrants were selected for their ability to contribute to the Canadian economy (principal economic immigrants).

While all other economic immigrants were spouses, partners, or dependents of a principal economic immigrant, a sizable proportion have valuable skills and/or prior Canadian experience of their own.

Pathways for Economic Immigration

Economic immigrants attain their PR status by meeting the selection criteria outlined in one of many different programs—also known as pathways to immigration:

Federal & Quebec Worker Programs

The Federal & Quebec Worker Programs category includes a suite of programs with criteria aiming to select highly skilled workers, workers in targeted regions, and workers belonging to certain occupation types.

In this chart, Skilled Worker Programs includes both Quebec’s Skilled Worker Program and the federal government’s Federal Skilled Worker Program—the latter of which selects immigrants through the Express Entry system (along with the Skilled Trades and Canadian Experience Class programs).

Of note, the Temporary Resident to Permanent Resident Pathway was introduced during the pandemic to maintain annual PR targets. While applications have since closed, it was still working through the applicant backlog as of 2023.

Furthermore, the Atlantic Immigration Program has now become a permanent program.

Provincial Programs

The Provincial Programs category consists of each provinces’ Provincial Nominee Program (PNP). These programs represent the largest pathway for new economic immigrants.

PNPs allow provinces to establish their own immigrant selection criteria and nominate applicants for PR selection accordingly. These programs are meant to accomplish two main goals:

  • to distribute immigrants more evenly across the country, and
  • to meet the unique labour market needs of employers in each province.

Each province’s PNP consists of multiple streams, each with its own criteria for nominating immigrants. They can target workers, entrepreneurs, investors, and more; and can even nominate applicants through the Express Entry pool.

Of note, Quebec does not have a PNP because it controls the selection of all its economic immigrants through a separate agreement with the federal government.

Federal & Quebec Business Programs

Federal & Quebec Business Programs represent the smallest category of economic immigrants selected. These programs provide a pathway to PR for entrepreneurs, including current or prospective business owners, individuals with scalable start-up business ideas, people contributing to the arts or athletics, and individuals looking to make a substantial financial investment. Of note, some of the programs listed here are available only through Quebec’s immigration system.

Conclusion

To inform a better, prosperity-driven immigration strategy in Canada, it is crucial to understand how economic immigration selection occurs at a high level. When we zoom out and see the different pathways newcomers take to attain permanent residency, several insights emerge.

New economic immigrants, who make up the majority of Canada’s new PRs, increasingly have previous Canadian work and/or study experience prior to attaining PR status. They are predominantly granted that status through worker selection programs. Nearly all have held a temporary work permit or both a work and a study permit in Canada.

Accordingly, when developing a prosperity-driven immigration strategy, Canada must be mindful of the inherent advantages and disadvantages of an approach that elevates the role of employers and post-secondary institutions.

Source: IRCC, 2023

IRCC data for 2022 PR admissions is preliminary as of Aug. 31, 2023. Data is rounded to the nearest multiple of 5 to protect individuals from being identified and may not sum to the totals indicated.

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