The Parents Left Behind

September 2013

The woman sitting across the table from me had brilliantly coloured red hair. I told her that her hair made me think of sunshine. She smiled, but only briefly, and then with tears in her eyes asked me how she could keep her 82 year old father in the country. As a citizen of a visa-exempt country, he was permitted entry for six months. Those six months were almost up. She wanted to apply for a “super-visa” that would allow him to stay for two years, with returning visits over a 10 year period, but she didn’t meet the income requirements for this program. Also, she told me that her insurance company warned her that due to his increasing age, they would not renew his health insurance at the end of the current contract. Instead, she would have to try to find another company to insure him. She wasn’t sure if she would be able to afford the high premiums the new company would undoubtedly charge.


Her father, she explained, couldn’t handle the long flights back and forth from his country of citizenship. And he had no one there – she was his only family.

This woman’s situation is certainly not unique. Many people came to Canada as young adults for the employment opportunities Canada offered to them, but are now finding it impossible to care for aging parents overseas. In many countries, family care is the only option for seniors, as there are no public or private organizations providing care for the elderly. The absence of family care makes these seniors very vulnerable.

This woman’s story also highlights the current constraints of the immigration programs available for parents of Canadian citizens and permanent residents. The regular visitor visa program allows visits for only short periods of time. The “supervisa” allows for longer visits, but even though the visa is valid for 10 years, the person can only stay in the country for two years at a time. They must still return to their country of origin every two years, and then return for another two year visit. Their children must agree to support them during their visits, and must show adequate income to prove they can do so. A health insurance contract must accompany the supervisa application. For the very elderly, and those with pre-existing health conditions, this requirement alone makes the supervisa program inaccessible.

Keeping your parent in the country permanently is even harder. The federal government suspended the parent/grandparent sponsorship program for over two years while they dealt with a huge backlog of applications. The program will re-open in January 2014, but with much stricter conditions and with a cap of 5,000 applications for 2014. People who want to bring their parents to Canada must show that they have a certain income, and must have been at that level of income for the past three years. They must also agree to provide for their parent financially for 20 years, which means that unless they can pay for a private nursing home, their parent will have to live with them even if their health deteriorates and they need 24 hour care. In effect, the parental sponsorship program has become available only to the well-to-do.

I appreciate that the federal government is trying to reduce the costs to Canadian taxpayers for the healthcare and supportive housing costs generated by new Canadians who have never worked and paid taxes in Canada. But we also want to attract the best and brightest immigrants to Canada to support our declining workforce. Who would come to Canada knowing that that years later they might have to give up everything they have established here to return home to care for their parents? Is there no other system in which new Canadians are able to care for their parents while Canadian taxpayers are not unfairly burdened? One easy example would be to allow two or more siblings to “co-sponsor” their parents.

I would not be surprised if the parent/grandparent sponsorship program becomes an issue in the next election. It is not just the people worried about elderly parents who are concerned – other immigrants need their parents here to provide child care so they can go to work. Political parties are paying more attention to the “immigrant voice”, and I am sure these concerns will be expressed during the next election campaign.

Still, other political forces are at work. In August, the Fraser Institute released a report suggesting immigrants were “financial burden” to Canada, and that the sponsorship of parents and grandparents should be abolished altogether.

New immigrants, like every other Canadian citizen, hope to spend their lives surrounded by their loved ones. The new supervisa makes this nearly impossible for a large majority of families. The promise of a new Canadian life shouldn’t include the alienation of grandparents from their children, and the inability to care for them in their old age. The supervisa is not the only possible solution, and it’s up to our government to ensure a more accessible system.