The challenge of accessing IRCC Program Managers and the cascading impact on immigration processes


Authored by Cédric Marin, Canadian Immigration Lawyer, Marin Immigration Law and Founder of

The accessibility and transparency of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) program managers are major concerns, particularly as their role in addressing immigration errors and urgent issues becomes more critical. Despite IRCC’s guidelines suggesting direct contact with program managers for service quality complaints, a growing trend shows these managers discouraging direct interactions, citing potential breaches of conduct and preferential treatment. As we will see, this contradicts IRCC’s own policies and complicates effective resolution of quality service complaints.

In response to this issue, we conducted an Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP) request to understand how program managers deal with direct emails and to assess whether their reluctance to engage is justifiable. Our findings reveal that this reluctance contributes to obstructing direct resolution and often leads to inconsistent handling of service complaints. Consequently, this creates a complex and lengthy process for applicants, marked by a cascading series of steps including webforms, ATIP requests, and sometimes judicial reviews, all stemming from initially unaddressed complaints.

Before discussing the role of program managers, let’s first consider the typical scenarios encountered when dealing with an error by IRCC or an urgent immigration matter.

Alternative solutions are not much better

What are our options if someone gets denied boarding since their visitor visa counterfoil has the wrong passport number, or a loved one is passing away soon, but your visa has been stuck in processing for three times the processing period? All examples in this blog are from my law practice unless stated otherwise.


IRCC’s transition to digital platforms, notably through the ‘webform’ system, represents a major step in modernizing how applicants and representatives interact with its services. This system is designed to facilitate updates to applications, document additions, and specific requests efficiently.

While this system aims to streamline query handling and improve response times, its real-world effectiveness often falls short. Users commonly face issues with unanswered webforms or receive generic responses that don’t address their specific concerns. This leads to a cycle of submitting more webforms without resolving the underlying issues.

These challenges highlight the vital role of program managers in overseeing the webform system and addressing service complaints. Their active involvement is important to ensure that the system operates effectively and genuinely serves the user’s needs. However, as demonstrated by an access to information request, program managers often direct users back to the webform system, even in situations requiring urgent attention or when addressing IRCC errors. This approach can result in significant delays and generic responses, failing to meet the immediate needs of applicants and representatives.

Judicial reviews

The Federal Court has experienced a significant rise in judicial review applications in recent years with more than three times the number of applications filed compared to before the pandemic. This increase is partly due to the necessity for applicants in Canada to protect their right to apply within the tight 15-day deadline if inside Canada, leaving inadequate time to request an ATIP to discover the precise reasons for refusal. As a result, applicants often find themselves compelled to file for judicial review while their ATIP request, webform inquiry, and reconsideration request are still in the process.

This situation is compounded by the inherent sluggishness of the judicial review process. Formulating legal arguments, awaiting a hearing, and receiving a decision are time-consuming steps. They require meticulous preparation and often encounter procedural delays, such as waiting for IRCC to send reasons for the decision, further prolonging the resolution of cases.

The combination of these factors – the urgency to safeguard application rights, the slow response of webforms and ATIP requests, and the lengthy judicial review process – creates a complex and often inefficient system for applicants seeking recourse against IRCC decisions. This highlights the need for more streamlined and transparent processes within IRCC, particularly in the handling of applications and addressing applicants’ grievances.

Judicial reviews are an established recourse in cases of legal disagreements or when questioning the reasonableness of a decision. However, it seems disproportionate to engage two lawyers, a judge, an IRCC litigation team, and various support staff to rectify a clear error.

Take, for instance, a scenario where an applicant for permanent residence is wrongly accused by IRCC of omitting a language exam from their application. An ATIP later reveals that the exam was indeed included. Confronted with this situation, applicants are typically advised to submit a webform. But if a webform has already been submitted and remains unanswered – a common occurrence, as IRCC often takes 4-6 weeks to respond – and with the 15-day deadline for judicial review looming, applicants might feel compelled to initiate a judicial review. This step, arguably excessive for what could have been a simple correction via webform or direct communication with a program manager, becomes the only viable option.

Approaching a program manager for a quick resolution might seem logical, but as experience shows, program managers are likely to dismiss such direct contact, citing it as preferential treatment and breach of their code of conduct. This reluctance further complicates the issue, leaving judicial review as the only certain, albeit cumbersome, avenue for applicants to address errors in their applications.


Reapplying after an error in the initial application could be a feasible strategy. For example, if IRCC says you failed to provide a document, you could reapply with this document. However, reapplying is not without its complications.

Reapplying might seem straightforward if one has access to the reasons for the decision. However, the refusal letters are increasingly disconnected from the actual reason for a refusal. The letter may indicate that you have been refused due to a lack of temporary intent, only to learn in an access to information request that the true reason was lack of funds. IRCC is the department with the highest number of ATIP requests throughout the Government of Canada, but this is an important reason why.

Moreover, IRCC’s use of the Chinook system for processing applications adds an additional layer of uncertainty. We know that Chinook is used to triage cases and present relevant information to immigration officers. This raises a concern: what if Chinook triages your application with other cases with previous refusals or fails to highlight the crucial information needed to address the reasons for the initial refusal?

Reapplying becomes more complex for programs that operate on an invitation system or were part of a one-time COVID-19 relief effort. In these cases, applicants may not be able to reapply since the program is closed and no longer issuing invitations. The closure or unique nature of these programs means that the opportunity to reapply simply doesn’t exist.

The cascade of events

The intricate and often cumbersome nature of dealing with IRCC procedures becomes evident when a single mistake occurs in the application process. This error can set off a domino effect.

Firstly, when an applicant faces a refusal, it almost instinctively leads to filing an access to information and privacy request. ATIPs are essential in uncovering the true reasons for refusal, which are often not clearly stated in the refusal letter, as noted above.

Following the ATIP, if the reasons for refusal are found to be unreasonable or incorrect, the next step often involves initiating a judicial review. This legal action seeks intervention from the Federal Court to reassess the decision made by IRCC. While this can be a path to justice, it is a time-consuming and complex process. In addition, applicants may apply for judicial review to conserve their rights. As noted above, they have 15 days if a decision is inside Canada, and ATIPs take much longer to obtain.

Simultaneously, applicants might find themselves reapplying in an attempt to correct the identified mistake. This step is fraught with its own challenges, particularly if the program applied to uses an invitation system or was a one-time initiative, limiting the chances of successful reapplication. A previous refusal increases the chances of another refusal. You could address the issue, but if Chinook does not properly present the case to the immigration officer, you can find yourself in an endless cycle of reapplications.

Additionally, the closure of IRCC’s case management branch in the summer of 2023 has further complicated matters. Previously, this branch handled individual case inquiries related to decisions or the decision-making process. Now, with its closure, such inquiries are redirected to less specialized and more fragmented platforms like webforms and migration office email addresses, leading to potential delays and a lack of focused attention.

Throughout this entire process, numerous webforms might be submitted in an effort to capture the attention of IRCC, each with varying degrees of success and response time. The option of calling the call center is available but often provides limited assistance for specific or complex issues.

This cascade of events – starting from an ATIP request to a judicial review, reapplication, and multiple webforms – underscores the paramount importance of quality in decision-making within IRCC. Proper checks and balances are crucial to prevent such a spiraling sequence of actions, ensuring that applicants are not trapped in a bureaucratic maze, especially when IRCC makes a mistake.

There must be a better way. Why not contact the manager of the office when they have made a mistake or if you have an urgent case?

How are program managers handling errors or urgent cases? Some aren’t following operational instructions

IRCC’s process for handling errors and urgent scenarios has historically involved program managers who were receptive to assisting applicants. However, with the increase in application volume and corresponding inquiries, their approach has shifted.

The common solution now is to direct applicants to submit a webform. This approach is problematic for urgent cases and rarely resolves errors efficiently. Additionally, an increasing number of program managers are asserting that providing direct assistance constitutes a breach of the code of conduct, claiming it could result in preferential treatment.

This stance seems at odds with IRCC’s Operational Instructions and Guidelines, updated in August 2023. These guidelines explicitly advise clients and representatives to contact a program manager in specific situations, such as quality of service complaints, lack of reply after 30 days regarding local office procedures, and issues related to biometric information collection and processing.

To gain deeper insights, we made an Access to Information Request to a Program Manager. This was aimed at understanding the nature of requests they receive, how these requests are actioned, and whether responding to them is truly a breach of the code of conduct.

We have decided not to share the ATIP since this is not about any specific program manager or any specific file. Rather, the examples below demonstrate a systematic issue.

A complaint from a DLI: delayed study permits

A Designated Learning Institute (DLI) – like a university or college – reached out to a program manager at IRCC concerning a significant number of unprocessed study permit applications. The DLI highlighted that the processing time for many of these applications had exceeded the standard three-month window. This delay was causing substantial disruptions, potentially affecting the upcoming semester for students, professors, and prospective students awaiting admission decisions.

The DLI requested the program manager to address and expedite the processing of these delayed study permit applications.

In response, the program manager emphasized that their direct email address was not intended for public use and should not have been used for such inquiries. The program manager referred to the IRCC’s Code of Conduct, specifically section 5.3, stating that assisting in this manner would constitute preferential treatment and breach the code. Here is the exact response:

“Our officer’s direct work email addresses are not public. However you have gotten them, you should not be using them to request information or action on a file. As per IRCC’s Code of Conduct, section 5.3, we are not allowed to provide assistance which would result in preferential treatment. If we were to action your email, we would be offering a “shortcut” not available to those who do not have our email address.”

Despite acknowledging the importance of resolving the backlog of study permits, the program manager maintained that they could not be of any assistance.

This interaction raises concerns about the approach to quality-of-service complaints. The DLI’s issue was with the excessive processing time, impacting their operations and students. Yet, the program manager’s stance suggests a reluctance to address such service quality issues directly, citing a potential violation of the code of conduct.

This incident is representative of a broader pattern where requests, even those highlighting unactioned webforms or processing delays, are met with similar responses. These instances, though specific to individual files, collectively signify a systemic issue with how IRCC and its program managers handle service quality complaints.

The program manager is correct that their email addresses are not public. IRCC has made concerted efforts to redact these email addresses. Recent documents obtained through an ATIP reveal that some program managers have faced death threats, harassment, and other security issues.

These are legitimate concerns that justify the redaction of their email addresses. However, this is a policy applied uniformly whether the program manager is located in Edmonton, Port-au-Prince, or Paris, all for security reasons. Rather, it seems that these security incidents are being used to justify the redaction of the names and email addresses of program managers, in an effort to funnel everything through webforms and avoid accountability or direct contact.

A complaint regarding a refused application

An applicant was told by an immigration officer that a webform could take two months to be processed. Hence, they reached out to the program manager to ask for their application to be expedited for humanitarian reasons.

The program manager at IRCC suggested that, pending a response to a webform, the applicant could contact a Member of Parliament (MP) for assistance. This advice, however, diverges from the established guidelines in IRCC’s client delivery service instructions, which do not typically recommend involving MPs for quality-of-service complaints.

Engaging MPs in such matters can lead to a significant drain on resources and time. The process involves the applicant contacting their MP, who then liaises with IRCC staff in Montreal to initiate an MP request. This request is then delegated to a staff member, who may address it at their discretion. The complexity of this process not only burdens the applicant and the MP’s office but also adds unnecessary layers to the resolution process.

It is important to pause and reflect on this recommendation. In our exploration of the various channels available for contacting IRCC in cases of errors or urgent issues, the option of reaching out to an MP was not initially considered, as it appears to be an inefficient approach. While it has become somewhat normalized for MPs to be involved in immigration matters, their role is generally to advocate for immigration policy and represent the interests of their constituents. Directing applicants to contact an MP for a specific error in an application seems impractical, especially when more straightforward avenues exist.

This approach, suggested by the program manager, highlights a systemic inefficiency in addressing service quality complaints within IRCC. It shifts the responsibility away from the organization and onto external parties, complicating what should ideally be a more direct and streamlined process of resolving application errors and issues.

Missing document that was provided

An incident involving a work permit application and a medical exam illustrates further challenges in IRCC’s handling of special cases.

The applicant had proactively included an upfront medical exam in their application, a requirement that sometimes applies based on the applicant’s country of residence or intended occupation in Canada. Subsequently, IRCC requested an additional medical exam. However, due to full schedules at the medical offices, the applicant was unable to secure an appointment within the 30-day timeframe set by IRCC. The applicant updated their application with evidence of the unavailable medical slots and requested additional time to complete the exam. Despite this effort, the application was denied for failing to provide the requested medical exam within 30 days.

Typically, applicants are expected to comply with IRCC’s document requests within specified deadlines. However, there are occasions where complying with IRCC’s timeline is impossible. Generally, immigration officers will have discretion to assess the efforts made by the applicant to comply, and provide an extension of time when needed.

Upon contacting the program manager via email to address this quality-of-service issue, the applicant received a standardized response indicating that replying to such queries would constitute a breach of the code of conduct due to preferential treatment. This generic reply did not take into account the specific circumstances of the applicant’s situation.

These instances illustrate a pattern where program managers, despite being positioned to address such issues, often resort to generic responses or avoid direct involvement. At the end of the day, they are responsible for the quality of decision-making that their office issues. While some requests might indeed constitute preferential treatment, such as requests for expedited processing, the reluctance to engage in legitimate cases of service quality complaints leads to additional bureaucratic layers. Applicants are forced to resort to multiple webforms, ATIPs, judicial reviews or even involve MPs, creating an inefficient and time-consuming process.

How do we move forward?

What is preferential treatment, and is it acceptable? Preferential treatment involves giving undue advantage or priority to certain cases over others without justifiable merit.

However, the line between necessary intervention and preferential treatment can be blurry.

Is it preferential to expedite an application when there’s valid reason, such as an error made by IRCC or an urgent humanitarian situation? While it’s clear that asking for a file to bypass standard processing or seeking personal intervention without valid grounds is preferential, addressing legitimate service quality complaints should not be viewed in the same light.

Is writing to a program manager, whose responsibilities include ensuring quality control, an act of seeking preferential treatment? The answer is nuanced.

While some program managers do assist effectively – for example, eTA managers resolving issues for passengers stranded at airports due to errors, or those who prioritize files based on clear guidelines – there remains inconsistency in response and approach.

So, what’s the solution? Creating an all-accessible, on-call system for program managers is impractical, given the varying constraints and responsibilities across different offices. Instead, a more feasible solution is establishing a dedicated internal review process within IRCC for handling errors and urgent cases. This process should be standardized across all visa offices, integrating both local procedures and broader policy considerations.

A specialized webform, designed to handle urgent and error-related queries, could streamline the process, provided it is monitored and actioned effectively. This would reduce the reliance on individual program managers and prevent the need for excessive ATIP requests or judicial reviews.

While the idea of removing program managers’ contact information from the public domain or changing their client service delivery policy might seem like a quick fix, it’s not the solution. Transparency and accessibility should not be compromised. When used appropriately, contacting a program manager can be a win-win scenario, saving resources and time for both applicants and the legal system, including lawyers and judges at the Federal Court. The key is to balance accessibility with proper guidelines and a robust internal review mechanism to ensure that cases are handled fairly, efficiently, and with the required urgency.

In conclusion, the systematic issue within IRCC is less about individual program managers or specific files, but more about the broader approach to handling errors and urgent cases. The reluctance of some program managers to provide direct assistance in clear instances of service quality complaints goes against IRCC’s own guidelines, leading to unnecessary and burdensome procedures for applicants.

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