Canadians have seen a flurry of changes to federal immigration policy since a majority government was elected in the spring of 2011. They have affected every aspect of immigration, from the economic class and temporary workers, to the family class, to refugees. The government says they are fine tuning the system to the needs of the economy, while reducing “bogus” claims and fraud. Critics say they are dramatically changing the welcoming approach of the former system to one that is punitive, not improving its support of the labour market, and making immigrant settlement and inclusion more difficult.
There are indeed many views of Canada’s immigration system. Many of those who praise it are non-Canadians, looking at the outcomes and calculating how they can replicate those in their country. Those outcomes are high levels of labour market participation, social inclusion, citizenship uptake, and second generation success. Many of the critics are Canadians, some of who see it as a cesspool of fraud and corruption, which takes jobs away from Canadians. Others see it as not being good enough, holding out promises to immigrants about job success and social inclusion that don’t come true. Critics come from across the political spectrum. Still others see the system as a success, but one that needs improvement and constant fine tuning to current conditions.
Historically Canada’s early immigration came from push factors in countries of origin: Scotland’s Highland Clearances and the Breaking Up of the Clans, and the Irish famines. Our first great intentional immigration came in the early 20th century when Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier worried that the empty prairies would be taken over by the US, and his government created policy and programs to attract cold weather farmers. Their first target were farmers in the northern US states, who brought with them livestock and equipment. Then they targeted farmers in northern Europe. They developed instruments to attract them: land grants or cheap land, credit for the purchase of equipment and livestock, rail lines for shipping farm produce, and storage silos. In under a decade they increased Canada’s population by over 50%, the equivalent today of adding 17 million people by 2022, or 1.7 million a year, or seven times our current rate.
The next great period began in the late 1960s with the invention of the points system, which chose immigrants on the basis of human capital: education, job experience, family situation, and language skills. Developed by the late Tom Kent, a senior public servant, it had the added advantage of being colour blind. As long as you could assemble the required number of points, where you came from didn’t matter. This has led to the great diversity that is such an important strength for Canada.
Both of these periods had in common the desire to attract immigrants and to embrace their strengths. It created the instruments to help them succeed, particularly in the Laurier era. It put out a welcome mat.
There is significant debate as to whether the current measures being put in place remove that welcome mat, and merely erect a set of hurdles and barriers.
There is general agreement that Canada needs immigration. Most people point to pending labour shortages and the Canadian domestic birth rate that is well below replacement levels, meaning without immigration our population would decline. Others, like the late Jane Jacobs, note that many parts of our country are sparsely populated, and that we have too few significant sized cities in most regions of the country. Cities drive prosperity in the modern economy. Still others note that our domestic economy is too small, and we remain too dependent on the trade whims of our larger trading partners.
But the unrest caused by the changes to immigration policy raises immediate questions about what should constitute good policy.
Maytree has always been clear in its view:
- it should strive to attract future citizens who will become the future of the country, who will raise families, participate in community life, and lead our future;
- it should bolster the economy by aligning with long-term human capital needs;
- it should welcome families who provide the resilience and support for successful integration and inclusion;
- it should minimize dependence on temporary foreign worker programs, which don’t work anywhere because of their inability to retain relevance to labour needs and their failure to respond to the mobility realities of the labour market;
- the process itself should not be draconian, and have reasonable appeal features; and
- there should be a strong humanitarian basis which recognizes that for both refugees and immigrants the process of uprooting lives and moving across the world is wrenching and full of risk.
The debate, such as is being permitted by a majority federal government not given to robust democratic process, is really like the sound of one hand clapping. The other hand is population policy. Canada doesn’t have one that is generally articulated or understood, if it has one at all. How many Canadians do we want? Are we about the right size at 34 million? How many immigrants do we want to accept each year? About the quarter million we accept now?
Some environmentalists say we already have too many people, that the earth has a limited carrying capacity, which we’re already exceeding, and that we are depleting it. Others say that too many people lead to too many social problems like crime and disease. Still others claim that immigrants themselves bring too many problems like conflicts from their home countries or ways of living that are out of step with so-called “Canadian values.”
Others say we have way too few Canadians, that our population target should be 75 or 100 million, and we should get there as soon as possible. They say our economy is too small, that entrepreneurs need a bigger market to build companies up to more robust size before taking on foreign markets. They point to the importance of universities and colleges in modern economies, and make the case for more students, graduates, researchers, teachers, and highly educated workers. They look at our secondary and tertiary cities as possibilities for more vibrant communities with stronger local economies driven by more customers, workers, and entrepreneurs.
Even with a smaller welcome mat, Canada will continue to be an attractive magnet for immigrants, although the international competition for the best and brightest is increasing by the day. This is one of the rewards for Canada’s brilliant 20th century, when we built a great country based on justice and equity. What we need to know is how big we want to be. Making immigration policy, or most other kinds of policy, without knowing the answer to that question, is the sound of one hand clapping.