An overloaded Canadian lottery system for new immigrants is "fair" and better than the program that it replaced, says Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen.

The federal minister made the comments on Monday in Halifax in the wake of a National Observer report that revealed the system had backfired, falling far short of its intended targets.

“It’s a very fair system,” Hussen told reporters after speaking at a conference about international students and immigration.

“The previous system favoured those who lived closer to the centre or those who were able to pay a lot of money and hire an agent to basically stay in line for hours. This system is random, so it treats everyone fairly.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberal government introduced the lottery system to give all parents and grandparents with family in Canada the same chance of landing in the country by randomly selecting 10,000 candidates among all of the applicants.

But some immigration lawyers and immigrant families have sharply criticized the new system, saying it is slower, more confusing and has cluttered up the immigration system with those who may not be eligible to sponsor a parent or grandparent or may not be seriously interested in doing so.

Before 2017, the government set an annual quota of parents and grandparents who could be sponsored for permanent resident status. The window opened in January and the government took applications until the quota was met, usually within a few days. Families had to prepare extensive paperwork, often including official documents from several countries, in advance. Families also hired couriers – often through a lawyer – to wait in line at the processing centre in Missisauga, Ont. to ensure their application made it through the door before the quota was exhausted.

The government changed the system this year with little warning, announcing in December 2016 that it would launch a lottery to fill the 2017 quota.

This winter more than 95,000 families filled out an online form asking to be included in the lottery. The government issued 10,000 invitations to apply in April. Hussen said Monday that only 1,200 of those 10,000 families have actually applied. The deadline is August 4.

Some immigration lawyers say that qualified, committed families were excluded by a process that encouraged frivolous applications. They say that the online form didn’t screen applicants for eligibility and that the pool of 95,000 families used to draw the lottery includes many people who don’t qualify to sponsor their parents or grandparents.

For example, lawyers have said that many people who entered the lottery may not have realized that they need a hefty income to sponsor a parent or grandparent, and that the income must have been declared on Canadian taxes for the previous three years.

Halifax immigration lawyer Elizabeth Wozniak is one of the lawyers who has sharply criticized the new system. She has said that under the old system, some parents and grandparents had all their paperwork and were actually moving to Canada by July.

Hussen said the new system is better because it is fair and because the government now knows how many families in Canada want to sponsor a parent or grandparent.

“This exercise has also allowed us to know what that universe is,” he said Monday.

“There were about 96,000 people who were trying. So now we know. And moving forward we can now address that universe. But prior to that we didn’t even know how many people wanted to do this, right?”

He also pointed out that his Liberal government doubled the quota of parents and grandparents who can immigrate to Canada each year. The annual quota doubled from 5,000 to 10,000 in 2016.

“We had a campaign commitment to double the number of parents and grandparents so that we can reunite more families and we delivered,” Hussen said. “So we deserve credit for that.”

Hussen also suggested that the slow response from lottery winners might affect the quota for parents and grandparents next year. He is currently in consultations to decide how many immigrants to accept in different programs in 2018.

“But the other piece to note is that the take-up so far has been slow,” he said.

“We also have to consider that. We doubled the number, but if people are not filling that number, then we may not have the need to double it further or increase it until people actually fill the allocations that we’ve given them.

Kelly Toughill is editor and publisher of a subscription-based news and information portal about immigration and international students. She is accredited by the Immigration Consultants of Canada Regulatory Council and does limited volunteer work, but does not engage in individual immigration consulting.