Irish in Canada falling out of legal status due to delays in processing residency applications

Those on the outside of the system can be very vulnerable, immigrant support organisation warns

For years politicians and support groups have raised concerns about the fate of undocumented Irish workers in the United States.

Not so much has been heard about Irish people living or working illegally in Canada who can also face the prospect of being made to leave the country if discovered by authorities.

In early December, Canadian broadcaster CBC reported that an Irish family living in British Columbia were seeking to prevent authorities from deporting their 19-year-old transgender son on the grounds he could be isolated and bullied in Ireland. The son is in a separate legal process to other family members, who themselves are also caught up in an immigration problem in Canada.

While not referencing that specific case, those working with Irish immigrants note that the issue of non-authorised people working and living in Canada has been exacerbated by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the processing of claims for residency.


Cathy Murphy, executive director of the Eamonn O’Loughlin Irish Canadian Immigration Centre (ICAN) in Toronto says longer processing times meant some Irish people have fallen “out of status”.

Many of those affected had arrived in Canada on immigration visas of specific purpose or duration. Some wanted subsequently to move on to securing more permanent residency but delays in the administration of these arrangements left them without legal status as their original visas had expired.

She does not have specific numbers on the Irish who have been affected by the delays. “We would not have stats but there are probably far more than come through our doors. There is a whole invisible community that is even afraid to come to us. Many will come to us but the numbers are far greater than we see.”

Murphy says some go back to Ireland but others remain “and try to figure it out within the system”. She says it is a “very serious issue” as there are not many mechanisms for getting back into legal status. Living on the margins, she says, can leave the individuals concerned very vulnerable. Some face exploitation from unscrupulous employers, while some struggle to earn enough money to eat.

“We have seen a lot of vulnerability around food insecurity. We have seen some coming to our office saying we have no money for groceries.”

Murphy says the Irish community established a “tremendous grocery programme” during the pandemic but even after it abated, her office had people calling “saying they cannot afford groceries due to cost of living, inflation or not being able to work”. She says the centre can direct them to a local food bank.

Recruitment may take longer than in Ireland. It is the Canadian way. We do not hire as fast. Interviews take longer. They want you to interview with the whole team

ICAN is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. Its main office is in Toronto but it also has a presence in Vancouver. The organisation is 75 per cent funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Murphy says it helps Irish people in Canada in three main areas; immigration, social services and employment.

About 4.5 million people or about 14 per cent of the population in Canada claims Irish heritage. Unlike the United States, there are still significant numbers of Irish people moving to Canada each year.

More than 10,000 visas are available annually for Irish people up to the age of 35 under the Canadian government’s working holiday programme. There are also young professional visas and arrangements for students. In addition there are work permits tailored to specific sectors such as medicine and IT while in areas where there are labour shortages, employers can bring in staff under a temporary foreign worker scheme. However, such visas are linked to the employer.

Canada is facing the perfect storm of an ageing population, declining birth rate and people not returning to the workforce after the pandemic, Murphy says. The government recently announced it planned a significant increase in the number of immigrants entering the country, with a goal of bringing in 500,000 people in 2025, although this is not likely to lead to an increased number of working holiday visas available to Irish people.

Murphy cautions people considering moving to Canada that there are some differences they should bear in mind. While areas such as construction are crying out for workers and people arriving may get a job in that sector immediately, others can be more difficult.

“In a lot of other sectors it might take several months to get the job that you desperately want. You might get a job in the cafe or the pub or in retail. And those are really good jobs. However, in other areas, recruitment may take longer than in Ireland. It is the Canadian way. We do not hire as fast. Interviews take longer. They want you to interview with the whole team.

“It is a weeks-long process. Clients often tell us they are frustrated by that. Having them understand that can dial down the anxiety.

“It might mean that people come [to Canada] with a bit more savings or take another job to tide them over so money is coming in.”

Murphy also stresses that in Canada, networking is essential in finding employment.

“Selling yourself is a big part of the job-securing process,” she says. “Our young clients coming out of Ireland are not used to doing that. They are embarrassed to do that. There is a modesty there. In a way you need to ditch some of that.

“When you arrive you really need to toot your own horn a little bit. Canadians do not see that as arrogant. They want to really understand who you are. Understanding that process is a critical part of being able to settle in Canada.”

She says apart from construction, there are employment prospects in all aspects of healthcare, particularly home help care. She says the country is short of nurses also but it can be a difficult process to transfer credentials from Ireland to Canada .

In Vancouver, ICAN’s national social care adviser Gilian Goulding says at the start of the pandemic there were huge levels of anxiety, uncertainty and guilt. She says many people were in a panic, not sure whether to stay or leave as a lot of governments were urging their people to return home.

Goulding says there is a big Irish community in Vancouver with a lot of activities but this was impacted during the pandemic, making some people think twice about whether they would stay to seek permanent residency or not.

Like many other cities on the Pacific coast, Vancouver also has a homelessness problem and the cost of affordable housing has skyrocketed in the city.

“A one bed apartment is maybe $500 Canadian dollars (€345) more expensive than in 2019,” says Goulding, who adds that her organisation has been able to point Irish people at risk of homelessness in the direction of available supports.

She says ICAN also offers non-judgemental advice to Irish people about the opioid crisis in Vancouver, warning people taking drugs such as cocaine that it can be laced with the powerful opioid fentanyl.

“And if you ingest fentanyl you could overdose rapidly and it could be life threatening.”

She advises anyone taking drugs such as cocaine to carry a naxolone kit, which can reverse an opioid overdose.