Canada is planning to open its doors to more immigrants as the government seeks to fill gaps in the labour market.
“In certain regions, the hunger for workers is huge,” federal Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen said on Oct. 31, when the announcement was made.
The new immigration target will rise 350,000 for 2021 and that number is expected to rise annually. There are plans for admitting 310,000 immigrants this year, 330,000 in 2019 and 340,000 in 2020. That adds up to more than one million newcomers over the next three years.
“I think the immigration goals that have been put forward are sensitive and doable,” Independent Sen. Ratna Omidvar told Yahoo Canada. “It is economically imperative for us to increase our population and to find workers for our economy at all ends of the economic spectrum.”
The federal government’s Advisory Council on Economic Growth called for 450,000 newcomers annually by 2021, but the Liberals are treading carefully. Hussen says the government is aware of the challenges that come with bringing so many immigrants in at one time.
“You need to be able to house them, you need to be able to settle them, you need to be able to provide integration services,” the minister said. “We can’t just go to 450,000 at once. You need to build up to that.”
Is bigger always better?
Labour shortages have been reported in Canada. A Canadian Federation of Independent Business report says there were 399,000 vacant jobs in the country during the fourth quarter of 2017. That’s why the vast majority of these new immigrants are coming under economic programs designed to address skills shortages and gaps in the labour market.
Some see the growing influx as a potential threat to Canadian workers and its culture. In August, Quebec MP Maxime Bernier criticized the federal Liberals for “extreme multiculturalism,” setting up the debate over whether having so many newcomers at one time is good for Canada.
“It’s going to create all kinds of tensions,” University of New Brunswick’s Prof. Ricardo Duchesne told Yahoo Canada. “No one is doing that outside the West because they’re not insane to do such a thing.”
Duchesne says the idea that bigger is better is not necessarily true, pointing to northern European countries as examples. When measuring success based on gross domestic product (GDP) per capita in U.S. dollars, Finland ($50,070), Denmark ($61,230) Norway ($82,370) are all outperforming Canada ($46,730), according to International Monetary Fund data for October 2018.
“There’s a lot more behind this,” Duchesne said. “The entire Western world is being subjected to mass immigration for some decades now and only recently did they start saying that this is now necessary because the fertility rate is really low in Western nations.”
Not enough Canadian babies
Canada’s low fertility rate has been an issue for decades. Statistics Canada says the last time Canadians were having enough children to maintain the level of replacement was in 1971. Since then, Canadians simply haven’t been having enough babies to sustain the population.
Statistics Canada notes migrants now account for approximately two-thirds of Canada’s population growth as the country becomes increasingly reliant on immigration.
“They’re not opening their borders to mass immigration. They are looking for other strategies,” Duchesne said.
Omidvar admits more could be done to create some incentives for Canadians to have more children. However, she says Canada is different from other countries because it’s been built on flows of immigration.
“We’re actually in the sweet spot. We should encourage Canadians to have more children, absolutely, and we should keep up a strategic immigration program to meet our domestic labour market and our demographic needs,” Omidvar said. “It’s not an either or.”
The ‘real beauty’ in Canada
The immigration minister insists the government’s plan will help Canada relevant on the global stage.
“It enables us to continue to be competitive, it enables us to continue to present Canada as a welcoming country and to position us to continue to be [a leader] in skills attraction,” Hussen said last month.
Duchesne says he’s also concerned Canada can find itself dealing with cultural divides if it is not careful. He points to France, a country he sees as “totally divided,” as an example of what can happen when different cultures clash and “ethnic enclaves” develop.
“Multiculturalism encourages people to retain their ways,” the professor said. “They don’t have that much incentive to integrate.”
But the senator says Canada is historically a culture built on flows of immigration, which is now home to many cultures, something she takes “great pride” in.
“Our culture is the rule of law. Whatever law we have is an expression of our living culture and immigrants and Canadians must respect the rule of law,” Omidvar explained. “The real beauty in this country is that we let our culture evolve, and change, and adapt. And that makes us nimble, flexible, far more ready to face the changes that are coming as opposed to rigidity.”
Short-term pain for long-term gain
Omidvar says as long as Canadians are reasonable people with the proper systems to check immigrants, there’s no reason to be alarmed. She also encourages those who believe this to be uncharted territory to look at Canada’s history.
“Canada doubled its population in 1906 under prime minister Wilfrid Laurier because it made a commitment to populating the West. It doubled its population in four years. And did the sky fall? No.”
Omidvar says she sees the hope in newcomers coming to Canada and isn’t worried about change, in fact, she welcomes it. She also asserts that many will apply for permanent residence or citizenship because they wish to join, not destroy, the fabric of Canadian culture.
“Is this a problem for Canada? I would say all our indicators point to the other direction,” Omidvar said. She notes many immigrants will buy a home and put down roots in Canada as soon as they can, which can be seen as a sign of attachment and success.
“I always like to tell Canadians who are concerned about these issues that it is a matter of short-term pain and long-term gain. There is a certain amount of pain involved for the immigrant when they come, for the country when we have to invest in language classes, but the long-term indicators are generally very, very positive.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau likes to say “diversity is our strength,” but the senator has a slightly different take on that.
“I would say diversity can be our strength — if we work at it.”
With files from The Canadian Press