A review of Canada’s family immigration program
Posted on - Nov 24, 2015

By Catherine Sas, Q.C.

Catherine Sas Q.C.

Family reunification has always been a cornerstone of Canada’s immigration program and our immigration legislation, the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA) specifically identifies as a fundamental objective “to see that families are re-united in Canada”. But what family members can you bring to Canada and how?

The Family Class is a mainstay of the family immigration stream. Under the family class program an adult 18 years of age or older can sponsor their spouse, dependent minor children, adopted children and parents and grandparents. You are not able to sponsor brothers or sisters, nieces or nephews, aunts or uncles or cousins. There are different criteria for sponsoring spouses and children than for parents or grandparents. We will examine these more closely.

Spouses – Who is a spouse?

A spouse is defined as being your married or common-law partner and includes same-sex relationships. Canada’s immigration program has had a relatively lengthy history of recognizing same sex unions dating back to a 1993 internal CIC policy directive which was formally codified in June of 2002 with the introduction of IRPA.

A common law partner is defined as an “individual who is cohabiting with the person in a conjugal relationship having so cohabited for a period of one year.” The key elements are that you have intentionally entered into a conjugal relationship as common law partners and that you maintain that relationship for at least one year.

A conjugal relationship is a trickier concept. Conjugal partner is defined in the regulations as “a foreign national residing outside of Canada who is in a conjugal relationship for a period of at least one year”. The Immigration Manuals, a set of policy guidelines to assist officers in considering immigration applications, provide the following instruction:

” The word conjugal does not mean sexual relations alone. It signifies that there is a significant degree of attachment between two partners. The word “conjugal” comes from two Latin words, one meaning “join” and the other meaning “yoke” thus literally, the term means joined together.”

The Regulations also provide that persons in a conjugal relationship for at least one year, but unable to cohabit due to persecution or penal control, may be considered a common law couple. This means that where something beyond your control prevents you from living together but you are in a committed intimate relationship, you may be able to sponsor your conjugal partner as a common law spouse. This provision for allowing sponsorship based upon a conjugal relationship is meant to address situations such as where same sex unions are illegal or where women are unable to obtain a divorce without consent.


You are able to sponsor your dependent children including adopted children, under the age of 19, which means that they must be 18 years of age or younger including adopted children. Up until August 1, 2014 a dependent child was defined as being under the age of 22 ( 21 or younger) or in full time attendance at a post-secondary institution. Since August of last year both of those provisions have been modified with the age limit being reduced to 18 and the provision for sponsoring older children attending school eliminated. Children that are 19 years or older cannot be sponsored and must qualify for immigration to Canada on their own.

In the sponsorship process for both spouses and dependent children there is no minimum income requirement for the sponsor and there is an exemption from the need for the sponsored person to pass a medical examination.

Parents and Grandparents

In the fall of 2011 the Parent and Grandparent ( PGP) family sponsorship program was temporarily put on hold to allow Citizenship and Immigration Canada ( CIC) to re-evaluate the program and to process the significant backlog of approximately 165,000 applications that had accumulated. The program was re-opened in January 1, 2014 but with several significant changes. Most significantly CIC imposed a cap of 5000 applications per year. By limiting intake, CIC hopes to be able to eliminate the backlog. In addition to the cap on applications, CIC increased the minimum necessary income (MNI) requirements of sponsors by 30% from the standard Low Income Cut Off ( LICO) figures and increased the MNI period from one to three years. To demonstrate income CIC will only accept specific government tax records. Finally, CIC increased the sponsorship undertaking period where the sponsor agrees to be financially responsible for their parents or grandparents from 10 to 20 years. Notwithstanding the goals of eliminating the backlog and speedier processing times, current processing times are still in excess of 5 years.


The family immigration stream is a longstanding and integral part of Canada’s immigration program, however, it has faced significant changes over the years restricting the family members that can be sponsored, reducing the age at which children can be sponsored, and increasing financial requirements and sponsorship period for parents and grandparents. Spousal relationships face considerable scrutiny in the immigration application process. Processing times for all types of Family Class applications whether for spouses, children or parents and grandparents have increased dramatically and are taking several years. While our immigration legislation recognizes family reunification as a primary objective, more needs to be done to recognize the spirit of this provision to facilitate bringing family members to Canada in a speedier manner.

Catherine Sas, Q.C. is a Vancouver immigration lawyer at Sas & Ing Immigration Law Centre in Vancouver, BC Canada. Catherine has been practicing law for over 25 years, and has been voted Vancouver’s Best Immigration Lawyer by the Georgia Straight newspaper for 6 consecutive years.

To learn more about immigrating to Canada, becoming a permanent Canadian resident or bringing your family to Canada, email Catherine Sas or call her at 1-604-689-5444.

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