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(JOHN LEHMANN/JOHN LEHMANN/GLOBE AND MAIL)
(JOHN LEHMANN/JOHN LEHMANN/GLOBE AND MAIL)

Earlier discussion

Finding ideal immigrants Add to ...

Every year, some 250,000 people from around the world immigrate to Canada.

Given the federal government's strict qualification criteria, many of those who make the cut each year are well-educated workers from a narrow list of occupations. Sharryn Aiken, associate dean of law at Queen's University and an expert in immigration issues, believes the current rules skew the system in favour of relatively privileged newcomers.

More related to this story

What kinds of immigrants should Canada be selecting? Is immigration about the economy or nation building? Should we consider asking applicants about their opinions and values? Do we care if newcomers espouse Canadian ideals or do we tolerate them holding tight to conflicting values from back home?

Prof. Sharryn Aiken took your questions on Canada's immigrant selection process. Prof. Aiken previously worked as a refugee lawyer and served a term as president of the Canadian Council for Refugees. She is a co-author of a leading Canadian textbook on immigration law.

Jill Mahoney: Hello everyone. Thanks for joining us. I'm Jill Mahoney, a reporter here at The Globe. I'll be hosting our live discussion today with Sharryn Aiken. We'll get under way shortly. In the meantime, please start submitting your questions.

Jill Mahoney: Professor Aiken, thanks for taking the time to join us today. What are your views on the federal government's rules for qualifying as an immigrant to Canada? Should we be using other means to select newcomers?

Sharry Aiken: I think the rules definitely need some fine tuning. Currently there is too much emphasis on selecting skilled workers for specific occupational sectors -- it skews the program in favour of a select group of individuals - most often elites within their respective countries - doesn't afford equal opportunities to prospective immigrants from many countries. I would like to see the inclusion of a "diversity lottery" that would give individuals from under-represented source countries an equal opportunity to qualify.

Guest: There is one criteria that largely escapes the immigration debate: age. Some of the more successful examples of integration I've seen in my life (I'm an immigrant; I came when I was 20) were from people who came in their 20es, unmarried and without kids. Should we consider age a bit more in the selection criteria?

David May: Age is important-- those 25-44 get extra points I believe

Sharry Aiken: Actually we already do consider age. If you are between 21 and 49 you get the maximum points under this category - which is currently valued at 10. I suppose the question you pose is whether age should be worth more overall. I don't think so myself. I think to place greater emphasis on it - would be discriminatory - undervaluing folks who might be above 49 but still have lots to contribute - for example.

Michael: Can you please tell what's Canada's general immigration policy: is it oriented toward assessment of the educational background of the immigrants or their employability in Canada?

Sharry Aiken: Well under the current rules - it is both. An applicant can get a total of 25 points for their education -- including completion of advanced degrees, 21 points for work experience and another 10 points if they are fortunate enough to have "arranged employment" -- ie an employer in Canada willing to offer them a position.

Thiva Kulasingam: How does the federal government determines whether they need more immigrants to a particular sector or not?

Sharry Aiken: Good question. Labour market surveys are part of what informs these choices - lobbying by specific sectors can also have an impact. But in my view -- we should be moving away from tying immigration to short term labour market needs.

DM: Is there something inherently wrong with allowing in Elites? They bring investment and stir economic growth. Is this not helping Canada? What negative consequences does Sharry see in allowing in these people if there are any?

Sharry Aiken: Well the "designer immigrants" Canadian policy currently favours have often not integrated as well as expected - at least in the short term. Racism and other barriers to accessing their chosen professions mean that these workers often find themselves underemployed and in some cases, returning to their countries of origin. When we select with a view for enhancing the Canadian economy over the medium to long term -- we focus more in the success of the second generation and beyond.

Pat Dixon: Is there anything that can be done to discourage the development of ghettoes - e.g. Asian in Markham; Italian in Woodbridge, etc.? I believe ghettoes of all kinds are dangerous for a healthy society.

Sharry Aiken: In my view there is nothing inherently problematic about the current patterns of settlement of diaspora communities -- the real concern is economic marginalization - and the extent to which newcomer communities are disenfranchised from the mainstream community. Italian-Canadians, for example, are no longer confined in economic terms in a bounded neighbourhood -- class has an important role in the formation of neighbourhoods and that's where our focus should be -- promoting opportunities for income diversity.

Thiva Kulasingam: Does the Federal Government have a program in place to monitor the performance of immigration policy in the place? How do we whether one particular policy is more effective than other one?

Sharry Aiken: There is certainly a need for more empirical research on immigration. So much of current public discourse is informed by prejudice at worst - or simply anecdotes.

Jill Mahoney: Click here to read a story and interactive on selecting immigrants.

Dave Howell: Why is it that the Customs and immigration officers turn back folks (Illegal immigrants) at the border daily, yet when a boatload arrives with illegal immigrants they don't get sent back IMMEDIATELY. It hardly seems fair to the legal immigrant that has been waiting a long time for approval through the system.

Sharry Aiken: Canada is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention - and we have implemented our treaty obligations in domestic law. It is illegal for the government to simply turn asylum seekers away without affording them an opportunity for a hearing. In fact the only people who are turned back on "daily" basis -- at least under current policy - are people who have arrived as visitors without proper documentation or proof of connections to Canada. But even in those cases, individuals do have a right to challenge the decision of the Border Services Agency. Of course, accessing counsel in time to do that - may make this difficult.

Karima: Shouldn't immigrant's financial ability be a major creteria. I am an Immigrant Citizen. When we migrated we were self supported so we were not a burden on Gov or on other individuals for anything. Any input on this?

Sharry Aiken: Well - under the current rules - an individual who wishes to immigrate as a single person has to have approximately 11,000 to even qualify - a family of 4 will need almost 21,000. In my view - this policy is discriminatory. I agree that prospective should have satisfactory settlement plans in place - but imposing an absolute monetary value to these abilities - we undervalue the role of family and kinship in supporting successful settlement. And we bar would-be immigrants from many parts of the world - where the prospect of have that much money in Canadian currency would be unthinkable except for a very narrow segment of the wealthiest people.

Jill Mahoney: Check out Globe stories, videos, interactives and other online features on multiculturalism and immigration on our Time to Lead page.

Guest: How can this agitation by canadians to reduce immigration be taking seriously by the Goverment and political parties?

Sharry Aiken: Who do you think is actually agitating about reducing immigration? There is certainly a great deal of concern about how we select immigrants - and debate as to the merits of the current point system. But there is a fairly large consensus around the importance and value of immigration overall to Canada.

Karima: I see many immigrants have challenges in expressing themselves or even reading the simple instructions sent by their kid's school. How do we address the language barriers - like spouses, parents, grandparents etc when they migrate to our country. This is for their own benefit becoz it isnt good for them when they need to have someone to translate for them. How do we address this issue?

Sharry Aiken: Just to be clear - skilled workers seeking to come to Canada have to score well in terms of fluency in either English or French. The bar is lower for investors and entrepreneurs -- and certainly many accompanying family members or refugees may not have the language yet. Barriers for these groups need to be addressed by ensuring adequate access to appropriate English (or French) as a Second Language programs.

NJ: Are you in favour of integration or multiculturalism? If visible minority makes up 18% of population of Canada, shouldn't 18% of MPs making laws for the population should be visible minority?

Sharry Aiken: In my view we should not be separating - even conceptually - the notions of integration from multiculturalism. As for political representation - we have a long way to go. At this point - Canada scores quite poorly in terms of numbers of women and racialized communities actively engaged in the political process - and assuming positions of power there.

Jill Mahoney: Here are two related questions:

Guest: I realize this arguement is quite old, however I believe two things are important in terms of immigration. Immigrants should have qualifications earned in their home country given more credit and/or equivalencies done at the time they cross the border. This ensures that we know exactly where they fit in terms of qualifications when they arrive, allowing them to more quickly find an appropriate job and begin to contribute.

Jodpur: Having noticed that we let in educated workers who then can't get jobs in their field (either because their nation's education was substandard, or because of institutional discrimination here), I was trying to figure out why the government has this policy of seeking people with master's degrees to drive our cabs. The only thing I can think of is that the government feels these people will share a middle-class sensibility and their kids will be hard-working aspiring doctors and programmers, etc., whereas the poorer people from the developing world will not favour education in the household, etc. Do you think there is such a hidden motivation to control the demographics in this way?

Sharry Aiken: I think the overall problem which both these questions point to- is the lack of an adequate empirical basis for informing current policy directions. Evaluating credentials is already done - but the problem lies with the professional associations and prospective employers who insist upon parochial notions of "Canadian experience" as a pre-condition of employment. As for the government which sets the policy -- I actually don't think there's a "hidden" motivation at play in the sense you point to.

Jill Mahoney: Here's a follow-up question on that point:

Guest: How do you think we can better serve new immigrants in terms of getting their schooling from home recognized here in Canada? The old saying, "the taxi driver with the PhD" actually truely exists here. Should we be offering to have their education/experience appraised before they even arrive? I feel as though this would give them the "Canadian creditials"/equivalencies to get them started in becoming contributing citizens.

Sharry Aiken: As mentioned -- the government already scrutinizes the education and qualifications of prospective skilled workers. The problem lies not at the appraisal end -- but at the barriers immigrants encounter upon arrival. More work needs to be done intergovernmentally in this regard - working with the provinces and professional associations to address these problems. The federal government has made some efforts in the regard in the past few years - but not nearly enough.

Jill Mahoney: I'll use this time to post a few comments from people:

Guest: Almost all of the Canadian population arrived as immigrants, and those of us of French/British etc heritage, whose families arrived in the 17th,18th and 19th centuries, are beneficiaries of a time when almost anyone who could get here had a chance, and often could be offered land. How hypocritical to refuse people now who aren't "good enough" or wealthy enough!

Krish: hey im a immigrant from india, i came as a student did my masters in york and im a permanant resident here

Krish: and i think the immigration system is quite broken

Guest: what do you mean by an ideal immigrant? I mean from what perspective, an immigrant might look an ideal one from one perspective but not from other perspectives?

Guest: For Canada to attract the ideal immigrant, first the number must be lowered to around 70,000 immigrants yearly from 265,000. Canada simply does not have the capacity to throughly screen around 1million applictions.

Quest: Do you think that companies are lobbying for more immigrants to bring down salaries and wages of Canadian born workforce?

Jill Mahoney: Prof. Aiken, what do you think of arguments that Canada accepts too many immigrants?

Jill Mahoney: I'd note that the current standings of our (very unscientific) poll indicate that 53 per cent of respondents believe Canada takes too many immigrants. Thirty-seven per cent say the level is just right and 11 per cent think it's too low.

Sharry Aiken: Existing research tends to support the current policy regarding annual federal targets for immigration. The vitality of our communities - not just economically - depends upon it. Indeed we are not even meeting the target of immigration as 1% of our overall population - a number that many social scientists have identified as the minimum to address labour market needs and our aging population. Without current patterns of immigration - none of the Western countries - including Canada - would prosper.

J: How does Canada measure up to other countries regarding new immigrant screening and application?

Sharry Aiken: In my view it is a bit dangerous to use opinion polls as a basis for setting immigration targets. The poll do provide important data on public perceptions - but the government should be a doing a much better job of explaining the policy rationales the support immigration. And we do need a wider debate on the criteria and the rules.

Jill Mahoney: Here are two related questions:

Guest 1: Why does sponsorship of parents take so long. The processing of applications has advanced 5 weeks in the last 9 months. The time reflected on the immigration website is 38 months but at the current rate it would take over 7 years just to qualify as a sponsor. After all this is a sponsorship so whats the monetary risk to the federal government.

Guest: Why does it take so long to sponsor parents when support will be provided by the sponsoring family not by the government?

Sharry Aiken: Very good questions. Processing times for family reunification are highly variant. Some individuals are reunited with spouses and children in less than a year - and others wait for years. In many cases this is a direct result of the lack of resources to efficiently process the applications in some visa offices. The hardship imposed by these long delays is enormous - and unacceptable. I think the average Canadian would be agitating if they had to wait that long for a response on any other sort of application. Increasing the speed of processing times should be a clear priority. Time and again governments pay lip service to this -- but haven't done what's necessary to address it.

Quest: Many Canadians are wondering , why do we need more immigrants when there are millions of Canadians are with out jobs or on assistance.

Sharry Aiken: Immigrants do not "take" jobs from Canadians. In many cases they perform work that Canadian workers refuse - in other cases - they fill specific labour market niches. The root causes of unemployment and poverty in Canada need to be addressed - but immigration is neither the cause - nor an exacerbating factor.

Causemark: I think immigration will be key to the economic growth if Canada. I worry though, that not nearly enough is being done to understand the opportunities...and challenges associated with diverse populations. For example, when people immigrate here, they bring a plethora of great aspects of their culture. Many from south east Asia hold "community" as central to their culture here in Canada. But we must also realize that not all the customs that considered acceptable in other countries are acceptable here. What are we doing about this? Or does anyone ekes have perspectives to enlighten me to a differing and more logical/realistic point of view?

Sharry Aiken: I think the question as posed is a bit problematic. Certainly some newcomers experience a clash of values upon initial arrival in Canada. The Canadian legal system functions to ensure that any customs which violate human dignity or fundamental human rights are simply not tolerated. I would remind you that the "custom" of colonialism and imperialism which contributed to the formation of the Canadian state - were also not acceptable!

Guest: Why is it that most immigrants come from india and china, is there a prefence for where immigrants should come from? Tony

Sharry Aiken: Source countries for immigration are conditioned by a number of factors. A young, mobile population interested in moving - decisions by Canada to station visa posts there - and adequate resources -- for example there are far fewer visa offices in Africa. So yes -- there are in-built preferences evident in the selection of immigrants.

Jill Mahoney: Professor Aiken, before we wrap up are there any thoughts you'd like to leave us with?

Sharry Aiken: I think this has been a lively exchange - but I'd like to offer a concluding thought - that as we progress into the new century we need to discard conventional notions of immigration, assimilation and social cohesion - in favour of more cosmopolitan, transnational understandings of human mobility and settlement. These understanding should help inform what sort of immigration policy Canada should adopt in the future - and in particular, guide us away from adopting an exclusively labour-centred policy.

Jill Mahoney: That's all the time we have today. Professor Aiken, thank you for joining us to discuss this thought-provoking topic. And thanks to everyone who submitted questions and comments. Sorry we didn't have the time to get to more of them!

Click here to check out our package of multiculturalism stories on globeandmail.com's Our Time to Lead page.

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