Why these academics say Canada needs to stop hosting global conferences

Canadian academia should stop hosting major international conferences until the federal government can sort out visa problems that are preventing some of the world’s best and brightest from showing up and taking part.

That’s the contention by a group of six dozen scholars who say they’ve been ashamed and frustrated by this country’s inability to process visitor visas for presenters and participants in a timely manner, as was evident at a recent conference on computer systems and architecture in Montreal.

Canada has been struggling with a visa processing delay since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and has seen its backlog of applications get worse.

Two years ago, Jose Nelson Amaral, a University of Alberta professor, helped Canada make a successful bid to host the 29th IEEE International Symposium on High-Performance Computer Architecture.

But the event in Montreal from Feb. 25 to March 1 turned out to be an embarrassment as 20 of his 80 presenters were unable to get a visa, with three workshops cancelled as a result. The majority had received no answer to their visa requests, while others were refused because officials didn’t believe they would leave Canada afterwards.

“Until now, I was a strong advocate for Canada,” said Amaral, a computing science professor who chaired the Montreal event sponsored by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. “Unless this (visa) situation is solved, I cannot be if I still care about my academic discipline.”

The call for a moratorium on Canada hosting events came after similar complaints about visa delays by the organizers of the upcoming annual convention of the International Studies Association and last summer’s world AIDS conference in Montreal that struggled with turnout.

As of Jan. 31, there were more than 1.9 million applications in the system, including 1,024,000 applicants trying to visit, study or work in Canada; 617,500 seeking permanent residence; and 303,000 people awaiting citizenship.

Currently, average processing times for visitor visa applications from the Global South are among the worst: 70 days for India, 66 days for Iran, 183 days for Pakistan, 113 days for Turkey.

Amaral said many of the conference registrants from China, India and South America — some of them visiting scholars in the United States — were unable to obtain a visa to Canada, with a handful refused despite their academic credentials and conference organizers’ formal invitation.

“In order to advocate for the best interests of our academic communities, we can only recommend a moratorium in selecting Canada as a destination for such events,” said a joint letter signed by 76 computer scientists here and abroad, including Amaral.

“If such a perception is shared with organizers of major events in other areas, such as sports competitions, and arts events, the consequences to the Canadian tourism industry could be significant,” they said in their letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Immigration Minister Sean Fraser and Tourism Minister Randy Boissonnault last week.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) said visa processing time can vary based on a variety of factors: if an application is complete; how quickly applicants respond to requests from an officer; the complexity of a case; and the capacity at visa posts.

In fact, department spokesperson Nancy Caron said officials processed more than 219,000 visitor visas in January, compared to a 2019 monthly average of 180,000 applications.

“We understand the disappointment and concern of applicants over delays or refusals of visa applications. IRCC continues to reduce backlogs and process visitor visas more quickly to respond to the growing number of people who want to visit Canada,” she said.

Caron said immigration officials routinely collaborate with event organizers to support processing of visa applications for delegates or participants under the Special Events Program.

Organizers registered with the program are issued a special event code for conference attendees to include with their visa application. The IEEE and Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) conferences in Montreal were not registered, Caron noted, adding that any participant from a visa-required country should apply at least 12 weeks before the start of an event.

Amaral said it took countless volunteers to plan and prepare for the joint event that brought four conferences in the field together in Montreal under one roof, all sponsored by the IEEE and ACM, both international professional associations with worldwide memberships.

Researchers submitted manuscripts last June and went through a rigorous review process by experts before being selected for the program. Less than 25 per cent of the submissions ended up being chosen, he added.

As soon as the program was finalized in October, organizers urged presenters and participants to apply for visas to Canada as soon as possible if one was required.

In the end, for his part of the four conferences, one-fifth of the 500 attendees didn’t make it, including the 20 presenters.

University of Toronto computer science professor Maryam Mehri Dehnavi said academic conferences help establish professional networks and contribute greatly to the exchange of ideas and knowledge.

The chair of the ACM conference on principles and practice of parallel programming said two of her workshops in Montreal in February were cancelled and a third of the technical presentations ended up being pre-recorded due to presenters’ visa problems.

“It was really frustrating. It put a huge stress on us as organizers, not knowing what our schedule would look like or being able to tell registrants what they would get,” said Dehnavi, Canada Research Chair in Parallel and Distributed Computing.

Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung


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