Is the current model of immigration the best one for Canada?
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
By MARINA JIMÉNEZ
December 12, 2005
Globe and Mail
At a recent meeting of the Academy of European Law in Trier, Germany, European Union functionaries spoke longingly of the “Canadian way.” It was held up as well-developed and rational, an enviable model for the international community. Remarkably, the Eurocrats were talking about the Canadian immigration system.
German policy makers are so enamoured of Canada’s selection system — which awards points to prospective immigrants for their education, job experience and language proficiency — that the government is considering adopting the model.
“In Germany when I make public speeches on immigration, I say ‘We need more Canada’,” says Rita Suessmuth, the former president of the German Federal Parliament and a member of the Federal Commission on International Migration. “We admire the Canadian approach because immigrants feel welcome. They are integrated. And you follow certain criteria to select them. In Germany, our main mistake in the past was to recruit only unskilled immigrants.”
Canada’s immigration program may be catching on in Europe — but serious cracks have emerged at home. Polls show that a majority of Canadians continue to see immigration as a net benefit, but have begun to question the performance of immigration programs.
Immigration is part of the Canadian mythology. After all, our nation is built by immigrants, from 17th-century French explorers on the St. Lawrence and British settlers of the 1800s, to the waves of Europeans who poured onto the Prairies at the turn of the last century and then into our mines and factories after the Second World War.
Over the last two decades, successive immigration ministers have continued to look to newcomers to fuel economic growth. Prime Minister Paul Martin believes immigration will solve a looming labour shortage. And yet, while politicians issue ever more urgent warnings about the need for immigrant labour, we are in fact failing to make use of the vast pool of imported human capital already here.
Census data now shows that better-educated immigrants are not doing as well as their less-educated counterparts did a generation ago. The reduced value of their work — because Canada fails to recognize their qualifications — robs the economy of as much as $3.4-billion a year, according to the Conference Board of Canada.
Another problem is geographic concentration: 80 per cent of all immigrants settle not in Halifax, Winnipeg and Calgary, where more labour is needed, but in congested Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal. Moreover, these clusters are turning into ethnic ghettoes. Today, there are 254 distinct neighbourhoods where immigrants from one ethnic region comprise at least 30 per cent of the population.
Finally, Canada’s mix of carefully selected immigrants isn’t what we pretend it is. Despite the rhetoric, there are many more family-class immigrants than skilled workers. Allowing immigrants to re-unite with family members is a sound idea, but if they overwhelm the system, they drain the economy.
Yet in spite of these many challenges, immigration is not likely to be a hot-button issue during the election campaign. Politicians know there is no gain to questioning immigration — and much potential to lose coveted immigrant votes in big-city ridings. In the early 1990s, the old Reform Party was branded “racist” for suggesting that immigration levels be lowered from 250,000 to 150,000.
Yet this is a crucial time to ask the question. Notwithstanding its fans in Europe, has Canada’s immigration model outlived its usefulness? Is the country getting the immigrants it needs?
Canada has the highest per capita immigration in the world — three times higher than the United States, for example, which has a higher fertility rate.
By 2011, immigrants in Canada will account for 100 per cent of labour force growth, due to our aging population and declining birth rate. (Immigration, of course, isn’t the only way for the labour market to grow. Countries such as Sweden have increased the retirement age and encouraged women to have more children.)
In 1993, the Liberal Party made a policy setting the annual target as 1 per cent of the population (300,000), based on an analysis that population growth contributes to a growth in per capita GDP.
Though every year the target falls short (between 200,000 and 250,000 newcomers arrive), Immigration Minister Joe Volpe recently said he would increase levels to that one per cent, or 340,000 newcomers, within five years.
Canada is the only developed country that wants more immigrants than it receives. The composition of immigrants is loosely set at: 40 per cent refugees and family members, and 60 per cent skilled workers, who make up for the decreased earning potential of the first group.
However, a key flaw in the plan has emerged, largely because immigrants are no longer able to catch up to their Canadian-born counterparts. By 2002, Canada had stopped selecting immigrants based on a need for their occupation and shifted to the “best and brightest” model. The theory was, highly educated immigrants with an ability to speak English or French would excel in Canada’s knowledge-based economy.
But this has not happened. Jeffrey Reitz, a sociologist at the University of Toronto, has studied census data and found that the employment prospects of immigrants are actually worsening relative to those of native-born Canadians, even as immigrants’ educational qualifications have improved. By 1996, earnings of new immigrants had dropped to 60 per cent of those of native-born Canadians. The employment rate of immigrants fell to 68.3 per cent in 1996 from 85.4 per cent in 1984. This trend has not been reversed with the economic recovery of the late 1990s.
The problem, says Prof. Reitz, is that newcomers must compete with well-educated Canadians, which is difficult when their foreign credentials are not accepted.
In Australia, the qualifications of newcomers are assessed and they are licensed before they arrive; the assessment is accepted in all states and territories. In Canada, provincial bodies regulate medicine, engineering, pharmacy, accounting and nursing, and often discount overseas training and experience. Ottawa has recognized the problem, and in the past month announced more than $1-billion in spending to help integrate newcomers.
And yet, experts complain that basic language classes and courses in Canadian culture are not what foreign engineers and doctors need. They need more bridge-training programs, workplace internships, and most significantly, to have their credentials assessed before they arrive so they can truly be “plug-in-and-play” immigrants.
Otherwise, they will take their expertise elsewhere. Don DeVoretz, an economist at Simon Fraser University, estimates that already as many as one third of immigrants — professionals in the prime of their careers — are returning home or moving to the U.S. He is tracking a group of 900 Chinese immigrants who left Vancouver for Hong Kong after failing to find work in their field.
Another serious problem is the false expectations created by the polite fiction that Canada maintains a 60-40 split between economic immigrants, and family members and refugees. Last year, of the 235,000 newcomers, 56 per cent were counted as economic class. That number included principal applicants (55,000) and their spouses and children (78,500). However, only the principal applicants, and not their spouses, had to pass through the point system, which ensures they are well-educated and speak either French or English. If only principal applicants are counted, economic immigrants comprise just 23 per cent of the total annual intake of immigrants.
The preponderance of family-class immigrants lowers the economic performance of all newcomers, since the former group does not have to pass the points criteria designed to weed out those unlikely to succeed in the Canadian labour market, argues Herbert Grubel, an economics professor at Simon Fraser University and former Reform Party MP.
This has also led to unrealistic expectations in the public’s mind regarding immigrants’ performance. If only one fifth of immigrants are chosen for their economic potential, should we be surprised that overall, it is taking years for them to catch up to Canadians in their earning power?
Finally, Canada’s immigration program needs to be better managed. There is now a staggering backlog of 700,000 prospective immigrants sitting in the queue. They have paid their processing fees, but cannot expect Canadian immigration officers in missions overseas to open their files for as long as three years.
This backlog threatens to undermine the system: prospective immigrants may be tempted to make false asylum claims and/or overstay visitor’s visas just to get into the country.
Mr. Volpe has pledged to tackle the backlog. However, new funds alone won’t solve the problem. With no cap on the number of immigrant applicants, they just keep piling up.
The government should limit the intake, and allow temporary workers and foreign students already in Canada to stay — an initiative supported by Mr. Volpe. These immigrants wouldn’t have trouble getting work because their degrees are already Canadian. They could also be asked to settle in smaller cities.
The current selection model, with its emphasis on education and language, disqualifies carpenters and bricklayers from coming to Canada. Yet the economy needs these blue-collar workers: Ontario alone has openings for 50,000 construction workers and 10,000 truck drivers. Temporary workers could fill the gap. And, the provincial nominee program — which allows provinces to recruit immigrants to fill specific labour market needs — could be expanded.
European admirers of the Canadian system such as Ms. Suessmuth insist the Canadian model is still sound, and can easily be improved. Regulatory agencies could accept foreign degrees; more blue-collar workers could be recruited and asked to settle in smaller centres; and the composition of family class versus skilled workers could be changed.
But Ottawa must act quickly, or more immigrants will simply give up on Canada and go to a country that allows them to have full membership in the club, not just guest privileges.
IMMIGRANTS OVER TIME
1901: 12.7% of Canada’s
population of 5.3 million were
1913: 400,810 (Highest level in the century. Proportionally
equivalent to 1.5 million people today.)
1950s: Average annual inflows were 1% of population. Mostly Europeans.
1960-1980s: Levels tapered off; low of 83,000 in 1984.
1990- 2000: 200,000 and 230,000 a year. Mostly from Asia.
2005 target: 245,000
CANADA’S POINT SYSTEM TO SELECT ECONOMIC IMMIGRANTS:
10 Age: 10 points (Top marks for people aged 21-49)
25 Education: 25 points (Top marks for Masters degree)
24 Language proficiency: 24 points (Up to 16 points for fluency in first official language)
21 Experience: 21 points (Top marks for four years of experience in highly skilled occupation)
10 Arranged employment: 10 points
10 Adaptability: 10 (Points for job experience in Canada and if spouse has a university degree)
67 PASS MARK: 67 out of 100
SHRINKING LABOUR FORCE?
Immigration is thought to be the best way to counteract the effects of Canada’s aging population and declining fertility rate. By 2011, immigrants will be responsible for 100 per cent of population growth. But there are other ways to increase the labour market: raise the retirement age or encourage women to have more children (Sweden has done this). Demographer David Foot says Canada doesn’t need more immigration yet, because the echo boom – boomers’ children born in the 1980s and early ’90s – are entering the labour market en masse. He says more immigrants will be needed in 10-15 years