A new Trudeau government strategy to attract more permanent residents appears to be working, Canada’s top immigration official said, putting the country on pace to exceed its goal of admitting 401,000 new residents this year.

In January, Canada added 26,600 permanent residents, Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino said Wednesday in a video interview with Bloomberg News. That’s an almost 10 per cent increase over the same period last year, before the coronavirus outbreak began in force. Factoring in additional admissions through mid-February, the government is almost 40 per cent ahead of the pace needed to meet its 2021 goal, Mendicino said.

“I’m confident because we’ve sprinted out of the gates,” Mendicino said.

Canada’s borders closed last March for non-essential travel and remained that way through the year. That coincided with a roughly 50 per cent drop in new permanent residents, to 184,370 from 341,175 a year earlier. Immigration is seen as crucial to adding to Canada’s labor force and has been credited as a driver of increased demand for housing and other services.

Canada still restricts international travel, and there’s no timeline for resuming it. The new immigration strategy is an attempt to compensate by providing a path to citizenship for more people already in the country, like temporary foreign workers and international students.

“To rebuild a stronger economy, we need to have enough workers to maintain supply chains, allow businesses to expand and create more jobs for Canadians,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in October as the government announced it was increasing its 2021 goal by 50,000, from 351,000.

In another sign of the stepped-up effort, the government sent out more than 27,000 residency invitations in mid-February to people in the Express Entry System, which ranks residency applicants according to their skills. That was a record number for an invitation round and was focused mainly on those already living in Canada.

“That’s five times higher than any single draw we’ve ever done in the history of this department. This is a demonstration of our ability to rapidly accelerate the pace at which we are going to land and deliver 401,000,” Mendicino said.

Of course, any effort to beef up immigration is a bet that the economy will return to full strength and require more workers. For now, the problem is not enough jobs.

Canada’s labor market is still reeling from the pandemic, after a second wave of lockdowns reversed some of the recovery made throughout the summer and fall. More than 850,000 jobs have been lost during the pandemic, pushing up the unemployment rate to 9 per cent. Even so, Mendicino says that the country has a large skills gap and that the new permanent residents are necessary to fill those holes.