The opposition blasted the federal government Tuesday over what the auditor general described as "disturbing" problems in Canada's system for issuing visas to foreign nationals.
The Canada Border Services Agency and Citizenship and Immigration Canada lack the guidance, training and information to properly determine who should and shouldn't be let into the country, according to the auditor general's report released Tuesday.
In it, Interim Auditor General John Wiersema said the two departments focus most of their energies on defending cases where they have denied an individual entry into Canada — a small percentage of applicants — rather than on reviewing the cases of people allowed entry.
"Notwithstanding the department's responses to our recommendations, where in some cases they committed to correcting these problems — they haven't," Wiersema told reporters. "I find that quite disturbing in particular, for example, the question of quality assurance of decisions to approve visas, the vast majority of decisions made by visa officers result in a positive decision."
Wiersema said the visa-granting system is missing basic elements for making decisions.
The watchdog's report says more than one million applications were processed for individuals seeing temporary residence within Canada and more than 300,000 for individuals who applied for permanent residence in 2010 alone.
Of the three manuals officers rely on to determine admissibility, however, two had not been updated for several years.
There are also worrying gaps in the information available to officers about security, health and safety risks to Canadians.
"(Immigration) and the CBSA lack the necessary tools and information to provide assurance that risks related to the admissibility determination process are properly managed," the auditor general's report says.
NDP immigration critic Don Davies said he was dismayed by the lack of progress since the spending watchdog's last report on the visa system, tabled in 1999 — a point that Wiersema echoed.
Davies said at the time the Liberal government was provided with a framework to address the issues present in the system.
"To learn that 11 years later that has not been implemented strikes me as incompetence of a grand scale," he said.
Davies said he was also disappointed that the government, for the past 50 years, has been screening foreign nationals for only two diseases: tuberculosis and syphilis.
"Today 56 diseases require national surveillance in Canada," the report says. "CIC has not reviewed whether foreign nationals should also be subject to mandatory testing for some of these diseases."
The auditor general told reporters he thinks "it's quite reasonable to expect the government to have assessed whether or not it's focusing on the right diseases."
Neither the Liberals nor the NDP are convinced that change will come about in the wake of this report.
"I'm disappointed in the sense that . . . they just haven't taken the issue seriously at all for the last few years," said Liberal immigration critic Kevin Lamoureux.
Lamoureux said the government has had plenty of time to remedy the shortfalls in the system. He said more resources for screening officials overseas are needed.
NDP and Liberal critics accused the government of chasing headlines with programs like this summer's CBSA most-wanted lists for criminals and suspected war criminals.
"It may not garner headlines to make sure that our officials have up-to-date manuals and tools and that our screening methods are sound," Davies said. "But that's the kind of competent work that Canadians expect their ministers to be taking care of."
Immigration Minster Jason Kenney said in the House of Commons Friday that the government accepted all of the recommendations put forward by the auditor general.
"We think they are very constructive and, in fact, my department is already working with our security partners, with the Public Health Agency to put those measures in place," Kenney said.
The minister said the government had made significant investments to improve security screening.
According to the auditor general's report, the government expects to complete all the recommended fixes to the visa system by September 2013.
Davies said this won't deal with the problem fast enough, when the health and safety of Canadians is on the line.
This year's report states that visa officers, the primary officials tasked with assessing whether someone can enter Canada, rely heavily on information provided by the person applying for a visa. This is problematic, the report says, since face-to-face interviews are rarely conducted because of the time and resources they require.
It also says officials are often unable to determine the credibility of documents provided by some security agencies in foreign countries. Applicants must provide security checks from every country they have lived in for six months or more during the 10 years previous to applying for entry into Canada.
Furthermore, about half of the officials said they lacked sufficient information to determine whether an applicant was a security risk.
Neither CIC nor CBSA have conducted formal reviews of the available information from the RCMP and Canadian Security Intelligence Service to ensure they had access to enough data for assessing the security risk of an individual.
Since the CBSA's creation in 2003, the agency hasn't signed an agreement with either the RCMP or CSIS to ensure full access to all of the necessary information. Without such an agreement, there is no guarantee officials will receive all of the information they need.
Neither of the departments responsible for allowing people past Canada's borders have in place a system to review applicants who already have been admitted into the country. This means the vast majority are never followed up on, the auditor general concludes.
The audit was performed between January 2010 and April 2011.