An American couple who live and work in Thunder Bay, Ont. say that despite years of trying, they’ve been unable to gain permanent residency, leaving them frustrated with the Canadian immigration system.

Danny Friedman, 37, and his wife Amanda Doran, 29, moved to Canada from northern Minnesota three years ago and settled on a rural property in Silver Mountain, just south of Thunder Bay.

They want to stay here and start a small farm. But their plans are in limbo while they wait for Canadian residency — something that so far seems out of reach. They must gain permanent resident status if they want to eventually become Canadian citizens.

“I don’t think Canadians appreciate how hard it is for Americans to come to Canada,” said Friedman.

Friedman is a part-time college teacher, and his wife is a veterinarian. The property they chose to purchase is a quaint 1890s Finnish homestead, complete with some of the original log buildings and a pasture where they’d like to keep animals. To Friedman, it’s “paradise.”

“I love living out here,” Friedman said. “And I tell you if I wasn’t so stubborn, and I wasn’t such a hopeless romantic, I think we would have said, ‘Forget it. Let’s go back to the States. This isn’t worth it.'”

But to Friedman, moving one step closer to becoming Canadian is worth it, and so is his country home in northern Ontario.

“How could we possibly leave here? You’re going to have to drag me kicking and screaming out of here,” he said.

Danny FriedmanSome of the original wood buildings still stand on Danny Friedman’s rural property, located just outside of Thunder Bay, Ont. (Amy Hadley )

New express entry system faces criticism

The problem they’re facing isn’t unique, said Robin Seligman, an immigration lawyer based in Toronto, and past chair of the Canadian Bar Association. Under Canada’s new express entry system, which was implemented in January of 2015, some applicants are facing difficulties, she said.

The new system pools several streams of skilled workers into one group, and successful applicants are skimmed from the top.

It’s a points based system, where applicants earn points based on qualifications such as language ability, education, and Canadian work experience, adding up to a maximum of 600.

The system can be extremely difficult to understand, and navigate, said Seligman.

She adds it also favours applicants with work permits backed by what’s called a Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA).

The LMIA is a document proving that the applicant is needed to work in Canada, because of a labour shortage in their field.  Employers must apply for the document, if they want to hire an employee from outside of Canada. They must prove they’ve made every effort to hire a Canadian first.

If an employer receives a Labour Market Impact Assessment, the applicant can earn an additional 600 points.

Some applicants struggling

Friedman and his wife don’t have an LMIA, because Friedman’s wife is here under NAFTA, an international mobility agreement which allows people who hold certain professions to move across the border without one.

Professionals who come to Canada through channels that don’t require an LMIA have a harder time earning enough points to qualify, said Seligman.

Seligman said she’d like to see anyone with a work permit gain bonus points, so that applicants like Friedman would have a better chance of being selected.

Robin SeligmanImmigration lawyer Robin Seligman says she hears stories like Danny Friedman’s all the time. (supplied by Robin Seligman)

“These people are really, really qualified. We should want them. We should be welcoming them with open arms. But if they are sent up on an intercompany transfer or manage to get a work permit without getting a labour market impact assessment, normally their points aren’t going to be high enough to qualify,” she said.

Friedman and his wife have fallen short of the number of points needed to be selected for residency. That’s even after hiring a lawyer to help them navigate the system, and producing proofs of abilities and skills. They’ve even travelled to southern Ontario to complete a mandatory English test that can’t be done in Thunder Bay.

Meanwhile, the couple are unable to get a bank loan or credit card in Canada, said Friedman. Their mortgage was financed through an American bank, stretching their Canadian pay cheques to the limit, and they live in fear that one year, their work permits will not be renewed.

Light at the end of the tunnel for some

After months of skimming applicants from the top of the pool, the number of points needed to be selected has dropped. Earlier this year successful applicants needed about 900 points. That’s since dropped to 450, which means residency is within reach for more people.

Danny Friedman's houseHowever, 450 points is still more than Friedman and his wife have been able to earn.

Friedman said he believes that current Canadian rules simply don’t match up with the reality facing many foreign professionals.

Despite his frustration, he remains hopeful that something will change.

“I guess I’m a pretty optimistic guy,” he said.

Danny Friedman says he and his wife have big plans for their property in northwestern Ontario, but are holding off on some of them because their future in Canada feels uncertain.