With the resumption of international tours, the persistent problem of visitor visa delays also returns. However, this should not be seen as an inevitability. Several potential solutions were recently identified in an online gathering organized by CAPACOA.
The event Visitor Visas and International Artists – The Delay Issue (and Ways to Mitigate it) was held on November 11 in conjunction with CINARS and in advance of MUNDIAL Montreal, two events aimed at promoting international touring for artists. The meeting, moderated by Clothilde Cardinal, David Lavoie and Frédéric Julien, brought together 42 stakeholders from the performing arts sector, all of whom are concerned about this obstacle to artist mobility.
This issue is not new. It became more prominent in 2018, at the same time as the deployment of a network of visa application centers outsourced to VF Worldwide Holdings by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), as well as the implementation of biometrics requirements. Initially, the problem was primarily one of high refusal rates. Now, it also takes the form of processing delays of up to five months. In 2019, the Festival TransAmériques reported having devoted 350 hours of work in order to save five shows from cancellation because of visa delays. Had they not found ways around the problem, the organization could have lost up to $150,000 in box office revenues, in addition to logistics expenses, according to the general director, David Lavoie.
The causes of visitor visa issues can be multiple:
- Sometimes the problems are related to late deposits from the guest artist. This may seem easy to avoid, but occasionally an artist in a production has to be replaced and this can result in a late visa application.
- The problem of delays itself creates delays… Due to the urgent nature of some applications, files are processed according to the date of travel of the artists. Even if it is submitted well in advance, a file can still be processed late. This leaves little time to react in the event that an application is deemed incomplete and returned to the applicant.
- Collection of biometrics is both dependent upon the visa application and a pre-requisite to it. One must first apply for a visa before they can give their biometrics. Yet, the visa application won’t be processed until biometrics are given. While this isn’t a major problem for an artist who’s lucky enough to have a biometrics collection site in their hometown, it can become a major hurdle for artists who must travel to another town or worse another country altogether.
- Once the application is approved, the visa must be physically stamped into the applicant’s passport. This requires the passport to be mailed and returned, which further delays processing times by several days, if not weeks.
- Finally, artists can be subject to systemic denials. The criteria for granting visas are based on the applicant’s “current employment status,” among other things. This can put artists at a disadvantage because most are self-employed workers.
Several solutions emerged over the course of the discussion.
Recommendations for presenting organizations
First, the discussion revealed that some presenting organizations are still unaware of the Special Events Unit. Yet, this service was implemented by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada as of 2019. Also, the meeting facilitators made the following recommendations for organizations presenting artists from abroad:
- As early as possible – at least six months before the performance date – register your event with the Special Events team. In the case of a tour, registration is normally done by the organization presenting the first performance in Canada.
- Once the Special Events Unit has assigned you a tracking number, submit an invitation letter to the artists with your tracking number. The Special Events Unit can review your invitation letter to ensure that it contains all the required information. The following is an example of an invitation letter used by the Festival TransAmériques.
- Accompany the artists in the submission of their visa applications. Take into account the estimated processing time in their country. Be sure to inform them of the procedures and documents required and monitor progress using the tracking chart provided by the Special Events Unit.
- If artists (and their touring team members) have still not received a response more than one month after filing their application, follow up with the Special Events Unit.
- If the artists have still not received their visas 10 weeks prior to the performance, or if one of the visa applications has been denied, ask follow up with assistance at the political level:
- Contact your Canadian Heritage program officer and ask for his or her help in being put in touch with a policy advisor at the Minister of Canadian Heritage’s office. You can also inform the Member of Parliament of your constituency and ask for their help.
- Then, ask the policy advisor’s to intervene with one of their counterparts in the office of the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.
- Policy advisors cannot directly intervene on a file. They cannot request the approval of a visa application or override a negative decision. They can however inform bureaucrats at IRCC that you are a serious presenting organization funded by the Department of Canadian Heritage (or one of its agencies) and that your event runs the risk of being cancelled unless artists receive their visa in time.
The discussion also brought to light some possible solutions to improve services and processing times at IRCC and the Visa Application Centres.
- Promote the services of the Special Events unit and provide it with more resources, particularly to increase the quality of services in French and to make it possible to call someone when a situation is urgent (at present only email communication is possible).
- Establish criteria adapted to the status of artists and of the organizations that present them.
- IRCC should first recognize the importance of presenting foreign artists in Canada from the perspective of reciprocal cultural exchange and the economic benefits of internationally renowned festivals and presenting organizations. “Arts and culture are foreign policy assets,” affirmed the Standing Senate Committee On Foreign Affairs And International Trade in its 2019 report on cultural diplomacy.
- IRCC should review the interpretation of its criteria when the applicant comes to Canada to work as an artist. Unfortunately, whether in Canada or abroad, artists exercise their profession under precarious working conditions. These working conditions are systemic in nature and artists should not be discriminated against on this basis.
- IRCC should take into account the financial support provided by the federal government for the presentation of a show. A presenter supported by a program of the Department of Canadian Heritage or the Canada Council for the Arts should be considered a recognized event organizer and this should be incorporated into the criteria for assessing visa applications.
- France’s Talent Passport is a model to explore and to adapt to the realities of the Canadian performing arts presenting sector.
- Consider changes to reduce or even eliminate applicant travel and/or documents mailing.
- Allow applicants to give biometrics in advance of the submission of their visa application.
- Establish a paperless process for applicants from countries where there are no visa application centres. This process could be inspired by the foil-less visa for Urkainian nationals.
CAPACOA is committed to supporting its members and initiating a dialogue with the Canadian Heritage and IRCC to reduce this barrier to international artists mobility.
We invite CAPACOA members who are experiencing difficulties with hosting a foreign artist to contact a team member. While we cannot intervene on your behalf, we can at least monitor the situation through you.