When asking the question ‘how much immigration does Canada need?’, one can be sure to  get conflicting answers. That’s because answering that billion dollar question involves economic guesswork, statistics damn statistics, and a policy stance that depends on how open – and to whom – one wants the country’s borders to be. So let’s review changes in Canada’s immigration policy over the last few decades, and compare it to similar countries. That way we can see how Canada’s immigration policy got to where we are today in 2015, and why so many people are pissed off. From pro-immigration activists, to xenophobic racists, to renowned environmentalists, as well as your average Canuck voter, and migrants themselves. And between all the shouting that’s going on, maybe we can find some answers.


How We Got Here

Ethnicities in Canada by Census Division By Earl Andrew at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Census Divisions of Canada by Ethnic Heritage [Public Domain]

Canada is not a republic. Repeat that one more time. Canada is not a republic. No revolution. No single constitution. We evolved as a nation, step by step. From colony to Confederation with the UK in charge of foreign affairs – whenever the UK declared war, Canada went to war; that simple – well into the 20th century. We celebrate Canada Day on July 1st as a tribute to Confederation, but that date was merely one of many in a slow march towards independence. And we are still very much part of the Commonwealth and still a Constitutional Monarchy (in theory more than in practice). Technically, that wealthy landowner of mostly German ancestry, with large palaces and silly toothy offspring, is still our sovereign. And most Canadians are glad to keep it that way. When we tried to change things in the late 80s and early 90s, through major constitutional reform, we almost tore ourselves apart, more or less politely.

So it should come as no surprise that Canada’s immigration policy has evolved roughly in line with changes in the UK’s immigration policy. Before 1947, Canada issued two types of passports: Blue ones for British subjects by birth and Red ones for British subjects or citizens by naturalization. The Canadian Citizenship Act, 1946 was the first time that Canadian citizenship as a legal category separate from British citizenship was created. It was amended in 1953 relating to citizenship by descent for minors, and again in 1967 repealing the provisions that caused loss of citizenship for naturalized Canadians living abroad for more than 10 years. The Canadian Citizenship Act, 1976 repealed many of the provisions of the Citizenship Act, 1946 that could have caused involuntary loss of citizenship. In 2002, the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, or IRPA, replaced the Canadian Citizenship Act, 1976, and outline the basic framework under which immigration policy, subject to amendments, is carried out today in Canada. 

As the rules regarding immigration policy have evolved over the years, Canada has experienced varied flows of immigrants over the course of the 20th century. These flows have stabilized at a fairly high absolute level of over 200,000 per year since the 1990s and this is at the root of much of the current debate on immigration policy in Canada. As we outlined in a previous article (Canada vs. UK Immigration rates), Canada’s immigration rate has been fairly stable since the early 1990s, hovering between a high of 0.9% in 1993 to around 0.7% of the total population during most of the this century. The question is: Is the rate too high? Or too low? Or just right? What rate suits Canada best? 


Stay the Heck Out, Please

For critics of Canada’s immigration rates, the country underwent a fundamental change in the late 80s under Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government. In what was describe in frank terms in the media at the time as an attempt to win immigrant votes away from the Liberal party, Immigration Minister Barbara McDougall fought for and won much higher quotas. What had previously fluctuated depending on economic conditions in Canada, became more of a fixed entitlement. Canada began to be seen as easy pickings by potential immigrants who began to arrive in far greater numbers just as a nasty recession began to hit in the early 90s. Less qualified immigrants began to arrive, according to this view, and had greater trouble integrating into the Canadian economy, just as the nasty 90s, with its increased competitiveness for jobs as the result of trade deals and the smarter-faster-cheaper mantra of the emerging information economy around the globe, became the harsh new reality of life in Canada. As well, Temporary Foreign Workers, are seen under this view as an attempt by corporate Canada to hire cheaper labour and keep wages suppressed. Canadians are more than willing to do the work that corporations say they are having trouble finding workers to fill the jobs for. It’s more a case of what sort of wage the bosses are willing to pay. Some of the more extreme voices like the late Doug Collins, a British born WW II veteran who became a reporter based in Vancouver, outright lament that Canada allows immigrants from non-Anglo-Saxon countries. Doug Collins is the guy that Preston Manning kicked out of the Reform Party 25 years ago for not signing a pledge against racism. Collins, who died in 2001, has also been accused of being a Holocaust denier.

Interestingly, the anti-immigration front has supporters from ecologists like David Suzuki and others in Australia as well, who sustain that Canada (or Australia), has reached its limits as far as its population is concerned and should cut back on immigration rates. In Suzuki’s own words “We plunder Southern countries by depriving them of future leaders, and we want to increase our population to support economic growth. It’s crazy!” In other words, the so-called steady-state school that postulates stable to declining populations with stable or declining GDP, and living in increasing harmony with the environment, hate robust immigration policies that are aimed at creating a whole heck of a lot of growth and wealth. At least for owners and investors. 


Open Up the Borders, the Jobs are Coming!

On the other side of the argument, are people like the Globe & Mail’s immigration reporter Joe Friesen who insists that retiring Baby Boomers, a low birth rate, and a solid economy will mean that there won’t be enough university, technical school, and other grads in Canada entering the work force to fill the new jobs. And that’s including current immigration levels. He contends we need to boost the amount of immigrants Canada accepts each year, or suffer a slowly declining economy, bleeding to death from a brain drain of talent flowing to more dynamic economies like the USA and Australia.  Friesen quotes University of Toronto professor Irvin Studin who contends Canada has forgotten how to build a country. According to Studin, Canada should aim at tripling its current population of 34 million up to 100 million. According to Studin, that would solve our lack of culture, our small I-crush-you domestic market, our lack of diversity and imagination as producers of goods and services, and our often ignored voice in international affairs. As Strudin’s bio at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance website shows, the guy has an impressive resume and is not afraid to speak his mind. In other words, we need an immigration policy on steroids, according to Irvin Studin. 


The Levels are Fine if we could just get it Right

Those who doubt, to put it politely, the views of pro-immigration people, point out that the Canadian government is already having problems integrating immigrants at current levels. As pointed out in a Maclean’s article, Canada attracts better educated immigrants on average, than the USA, which has to manage an enormous number of poorly skilled illegal migrants from Mexico and other countries, and yet Canada has worse outcomes than America does. The wage gap between foreign and native workers in Canada is significant, especially among university grads, and is increasing. In the USA, wages barely differ between those born abroad and native Americans. While Canada’s immigration point system is now considered at least a partial failure, it’s time to take a closer look at the attitudes of Canadian business owners. In general, a lack of Canadian work experience is fatal in Canada. It doesn’t matter, for example, if you worked as a high-powered financial analyst in Singapore, if you haven’t done time at a Canadian financial institution, good luck getting a job anywhere near your experience level.

Could it be that American employers are more flexible and more generous? Or simply more able to recognize and qualify talent from abroad? Is America so big and bustling and risk-takingly optimistic that just about anyone can fit in, if they show a little faith and effort? And is Canada a more cautious, inward looking place where an employer feels he or she needs to see some local experience before they can hire you? Despite our official multiculturalism, do we have a lot to learn, compared to America’s melting pot, on how to integrate new immigrants into Canadian society?

Or is it something far more basic? As in the unemployment rate. As in Canada having suffered several deeper recessions than the USA since the early 80s, the 2008-9 great recession being the exception. As in Canadian employers noting far more foreign applicants from the early 90s on, when the Canadian economy went belly up under an enormous accumulated debt load, just as Clinton’s America was shifting into 4th gear on the info freeway.


Not even Chris Alexander and Jason Kenney would say Canada has immigration levels right where they want them. Everyone admits we need some changes made to current immigration policy, at the very least. And changes are happening. But it’s a given that frustrated immigrants, xenophobic nationalists, ecologists, average angry voters, or optimistic policy wonks will never, as a group, be happy with any given level of immigration into Canada. But that’s the balancing act under fire that’s a part of Minister Alexander’s job description. Whether they like it or not. Consider this table:

Country Population
Growth Rate
Birth Rate Death Rate Net Migration
GDP Growth
% Born Abroad
Australia 1.09% 12.19 per 1,000 7.07 per 1,000 5.74 per 1,000 6.1% 2.5% 23.6%
Canada 0.75% 10.29 per 1,000 8.31 per 1,000 5.66 per 1,000 6.7% 2.63% 18%
United States 0.77% 13.42 per 1,000 8.15 per 1,000 2.45 per 1,000 5.6% 2.2% 12.8%


https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats%[email protected]/mediareleasesbyCatalogue/46DFE12FCDB783D9CA256B740082AA6C?Opendocument

Rates are as of December 2014, and are on an annual basis. The GDP growth rate in the USA was much higher during the earlier months of 2014. The % born abroad figures are from 2006 and are likely higher in 2015 for all 3 countries.

Looking at these results, it is a little easier to understand the USA’s relative generosity with foreign workers, especially immigrants with university degrees. Despite accounting for illegal immigrants that may number between 3 to 5% of the total population, the USA still has less foreign born residents than Canada, and perhaps less than Australia, as a percentage of their total population. They also have the lowest unemployment rate and despite December’s dip, the strongest average growth rate of the economy in 2014. While they do have a birth rate significantly higher than Canada’s, their population growth is almost identical. All this adds up to more jobs on a relative basis for immigrants to the USA than for immigrants to Canada. Given the fact that, in Canada, we have the highest unemployment rate, the lowest population growth rate, and a modest economic growth rate that seems set to weaken slightly, as well as the highest percentage of foreign born residents, perhaps a slightly tighter immigration policy makes sense.

But the danger is that a policy that is too tight and too discouraging to immigrants – and that also means matching immigrants to jobs, something we still haven’t got right – and Professor Studin is right to warn that we risk stagnation and even decline as a country. If you’re a nationalist/ecologist who would love to see places like Brampton and Surrey abandoned by disgusted new Canadians giving up on Canada, and being turned back into farmland or reclaimed wilderness as our population increasingly ages and shrinks in size, then closing the doors to newcomers might seem like a great idea. Safe to say, the debate over how many immigrants Canada can handle is far from over.


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