updated 11/29/2008 12:13:12 AM ET 2008-11-29T05:13:12

Canada's government said Friday that it plans to fast-track the immigration process for skilled workers in high-demand occupations, drawing criticism from the country's opposition leaders that the new rules are unfair.

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said applications for immigrants in occupations such as health, skilled trades, finance and resource extraction will be processed within a year, compared to a process that can take up to six years under the old system. Geochemists, speech language pathologists, university professors, plumbers and chefs will also be fast-tracked.

"The recent steps this government has taken to improve our immigration system will help ensure that Canada remains competitive internationally and responsive to labor market needs domestically," Kenney said.

Opposition leaders argued the changes by the Conservative government would create two classes of immigrants, leaving less-skilled workers stuck at the back of the line.

New Democrat immigration critic Olivia Chow called the government's classification of high-demand jobs absurd.

"One on the list is financial services. Didn't I just notice that there's a huge number of people being laid off in the financial services?" Chow said.

Chow also criticized the government's plan to double the number of temporary foreign workers in five years, saying such a move would drive down wages.

"It's bad for the Canadian economy and it's bad for (the workers), because they cannot bring in their families and often are open to exploitation and abuse," said Chow.

The Liberals drew parallels between the current reforms and an effort by the Conservative government of the 1950s to favor skilled workers — a move that created a rift between the government and some ethnic communities. The government then backed away from the proposed reforms.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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