While party leaders have gone to considerable lengths to court immigrant communities, important questions about immigration have been ignored in this election campaign. In general, Canadians are more positive about immigration that any other major immigrant-receiving country. But a very significant proportion thinks that, with the highest net per capita intake in the world, we're bringing in far more people than we need or can absorb.
This is clear from the fact that those who've arrived in recent years have had a much weaker economic performance and higher poverty rates than either those born in Canada or newcomers who came here before 1980. There's particular concern in larger cities, where pressures on the education and health-care systems and the problems of congestion, integration and cost to taxpayers are most obvious. Despite this, however, no major party has shown itself prepared to call for lower immigration levels - in fact, the Liberals, NDP and Greens want to raise them even higher.
The English-language leaders debate not only failed to address key issues but exposed the fact that some of the participants didn't even understand the basic terms involved. Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, for instance, passionately defended family-class immigration and used the example of his own family's entry into Canada decades ago. The fact is, however, that family-class immigration didn't exist in the 1920s when the Ignatieffs came to Canada and, had the current immigration categories been in place, the family would have entered as independent immigrants (i.e., on their own merits) rather than family-class immigrants (who are sponsored by relatives already here).
Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe revealed an even greater degree of ignorance when he railed against the government for establishing two classes of refugees because it took a tough line with the Tamil boat people who arrived last year compared with our generous treatment of boat people from Vietnam and Cambodia several decades ago.
What he apparently didn't bother to find out was that, by all international standards, the two groups do fall into quite different categories. The Indochinese boat people made their way to Southeast Asian countries, where they were accommodated in refugee camps by the United Nations, and we then selected and assisted large numbers of them to resettle in Canada.
The Tamil boat people, in contrast, simply arrived on our doorstep and sought to stay here without our first having an opportunity to screen them and decide whether they were genuine refugees. They could have applied to come to Canada as refugees from overseas but knew that, once they set foot on our soil, our highly dysfunctional refugee determination system would in all likelihood make it possible for them to stay here permanently, no matter how weak their claims as refugees.
All the opposition parties, in the event, have taken issue with the government's attempts to pass a bill aimed at curbing the kind of human smuggling that occurred in the case of the Tamil boat people. While one of the explanations offered by the Liberals for their position is that the proposed legislation might not survive a Charter challenge, the real reason is probably more related to the fact that they don't want to alienate communities that have made widespread use of our lax refugee system. Indeed, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently tried to explain the importance of such legislation to an immigrant audience in Vancouver, he was politely told they weren't interested in hearing about human smuggling since 30 per cent of their community had used the refugee system to get into Canada.
While the opposition's position on this issue may play well with a number of immigrant communities, surveys indicate that most Canadians support the kind of firm line the government has taken. So it remains to be seen which parties will benefit the most from these differing stands on election day.
Perhaps even more contentious in terms of party differences is the issue of sponsorship of parents and grandparents under the family class. When the Conservatives took office in 2006, they inherited a backlog of more than 100,000 applications in this category, a queue that has since grown considerably longer.
The problem with such sponsorships is that they're very costly for Canadians. Apart from eligibility for Old Age Security, elderly people incur much heavier costs on the health-care system than those who're younger, and few sponsored parents and grandparents contribute to any of these costs through income tax. The expense to taxpayers of the third of a million who've been granted visas in recent years probably constitutes a significant portion of the estimated tens of billions of dollars annually that newcomers receive in benefits over what they pay in taxes.
In some immigrant communities, sponsoring one's parents is particularly popular because they're allowed to bring with them their unmarried children without the latter having to have any of the qualifications for employability, language fluency etc. needed to be admitted as an independent immigrant. When the offspring are old enough, they, in turn, sponsor spouses from their former homelands whose families will pay large sums so they'll be able to launch a chain of family-class sponsorships of their own. Bringing in one's parents, therefore, can be a very profitable enterprise.
Despite the high cost to Canadians of the sponsoring of parents and grandparents, both the Liberals and NDP have promised to be more generous in terms of letting them in. The parties are presumably counting on this to shore up support in immigrant communities and hoping that few other voters will take note of just how expensive this program is for taxpayers.
Martin Collacott, a former Canadian ambassador in Asia and the Middle East, is a spokesman for the Centre for Immigration Policy Reform.