More than a century ago, the debate about migration in the West was largely settled. Migration was seen to be a boon to the economic fortunes of countries, and many states eliminated unnecessary obstacles to movement such as passports and visas. Britain, after calling for the use of passports in its 1836 Aliens Restrictions Act, later eliminated them in 1872.
The argument was simple, according to Giovanni Bolis, a late-19th-century Italian legal commentator: Passports should be eliminated “not merely as a homage to the civility of the times … but as a measure of great importance for economic relations, favouring commerce, industry and progress, facilitating the relations among the various countries, and liberating travellers from harassment and hindrances.”
Such a view would be considered radical by today’s standards, but the 19th-century insight that immigration and economic growth go hand-in-hand has returned to conventional thinking in Canada. The evidence is certainly strong. A recent OECD study found that increased immigration is accompanied by increases in total employment and GDP growth. In the United States, studies find that migration increases the rate of invention, and in Canada, first-generation immigrants are 20 per cent more likely to have started a business.
The truth is that migrants are, as a population, exceptional people. And it is the qualities of migrants – not just their education and skills – that benefit our economy and society. Those people who elect to move abroad are, by nature or by choice, often willing to tolerate more risk and ambiguity in their pursuit of opportunity. In their Canadian workplaces, they are “divergent thinkers” whose different ways of viewing the world can challenge the status quo and stimulate new approaches to problems. Migrants often bring cross-cultural skills and international networks, assets to Canada’s economy in an age of global integration.
In short, the key innovation advantage conferred by higher rates of migration is also its greatest risk. Migrants are disruptive. They often bring different ways of thinking, different ways of doing things and an aspirational drive. These qualities make migration essential to the future prosperity of Canada, but they also point to the destabilizing effect of rapid change.
When Clifford Sifton launched the Last Best West campaign in the late 19th century to attract migrants to Western Canada, he assumed that they would travel there and then settle. In our hyper-connected world, however, migrants rarely move only once. The computer programmer who moves from Bangalore to Waterloo may pack up in five or 10 years to return home. For most people, migration is temporary, repeated or circular. Indeed, according to the Asia Pacific Foundation, about 2.8 million Canadian citizens now live overseas.
Realizing the economic gains of migration, therefore, requires attention to a broader spectrum of policy issues than the worthy goal of reforming visa processes for the highly skilled. Vibrant, cutting-edge industries and universities should be nurtured so that Canada can attract, train and employ the best and brightest. Cities and schools need the resources to manage the consequences of greater diversity and mobility. In brief, migration and mobility should be mainstreamed into domestic policy frameworks.
Canada can also consider the role of its foreign policy, in particular by supporting a rules-based system to govern global migration. Many migrant-sending countries have long supported proposals for closer international co-operation on migration, including better human-rights protections for migrant workers, and Canada could emerge as an influential advocate for better global migration governance. Doing so would not only help to improve current ad hoc approaches, it would send a message to the world that Canada embraces the contribution migrants make to its own society and economy. This kind of leadership would also cement Canada’s position as a preferred destination for the world’s aspiring workers, thinkers and innovators.
Prosperity in the 21st century will come to those countries that are able to recognize and harness the benefits of greater global mobility. Reforming Canada’s immigration policy is a good first step, but more movement is necessary.
Geoffrey Cameron and Ian Goldin are co-authors of Exceptional People: How Migration Shaped Our World and Will Define Our Future .
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