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Wade Sha playing with his son Maison after work at his home in Calgary, Alberta, May 3, 2012. (TODD KOROL/Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail)
Wade Sha playing with his son Maison after work at his home in Calgary, Alberta, May 3, 2012. (TODD KOROL/Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail)

The Immigrant Answer

Should Canada screen immigrants based on language or country? Add to ...

This is part of The Immigrant Answer –The Globe's series on the future of immigration in Canada. Read the original story here.

The unrelenting economic gloom in Europe inspired voters in both France and Greece to change governments this weekend. It’s also been compelling tens of thousands of the continent’s young people – for instance in Spain, where unemployment is above 50 per cent for those 25 and under, as well as in Greece, Portugal, Italy and Ireland – to consider emigrating to more prosperous shores.

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Meanwhile, Canada is in need of hundreds of thousands more immigrants in the next decade just to fill its labour-market needs, not to mention to counter its rapidly aging demographics. Should it take advantage of Europe’s plight and target those countries to find skilled and educated potential migrants?

That thought raises the more general, and sensitive, question of whether Canada should favour applicants schooled in systems and cultures closer to its own. Immigrants from Western Europe tend to do better economically, and faster, than other newcomers. The average starting wages of new immigrants in Canada have dropped dramatically since the 1980s, a period that’s seen rising immigration from Asia and diminishing numbers from Europe.

But many experts say that shifting the balance back would mean Canada was abandoning a 50-year commitment to assessing immigrants without regard for race or national origin – a policy deliberately adopted in the 1960s to shake off the legacy of shameful policies such as the $500 “head tax” that Chinese immigrants were charged in the early 20th century.

Canadian policy has taken one step in the direction of geographic targeting with Citizen and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney’s announcement earlier this year that the government intends to require higher levels of proficiency in either English or French among immigrants admitted in the future, as part of the selection system that allots prospective new Canadians points for their education, experience and skills.

In theory the ability to speak a language is open to everyone. But English or French fluency is much more common in some places than in others.

“The points system was introduced to create a more objective system that wouldn’t screen out based on race, national origin or mother tongue,” says Debbie Douglas, director of the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants. “Intentionally or not, [this change]will privilege Western Europe and other parts of the world, probably India and Pakistan. …But most of the global south will be screened out.”

“I think there’s little question that there will be a significant shift in source countries. And the country that will be most affected is China,” agrees Naomi Alboim, a professor in the School of Policy Studies at Queen’s University and a former deputy minister in the Ontario Ministry of Citizenship. “English-speaking countries will rise to the fore.”

Taking a hint from down under

Many of Mr. Kenney’s reforms are modelled on the Australian system, which has introduced stricter language requirements in several stages over the last 13 years. By 2007 skilled immigrants required a “vocational” (fairly high) level of fluency for admission. As a consequence, says Prof. Alboim, Australia’s share of immigrants from the U.K, Ireland and New Zealand rose, while the proportion from China declined. There was, however, an improvement in economic outcomes for immigrants there in that time – and that’s the result Canada is trying to emulate.

Ratna Omidvar, president of the Maytree Foundation, says that every piece of research she has seen indicates that language ability is critically important to newcomer integration, both at work and in the community more broadly.

“You might have fantastic educational credentials, but if you don’t have the language skills you cannot get full value for those credentials in Canada,” Prof. Sweetman said.

It’s crude but commonplace to measure the economic success of immigrants by nationality. American and British immigrants for example, earn more than the Canadian average shortly after they arrive, which is far better than any other immigrant group. Filipinos have lower levels of income, but they also have among the highest rates of employment. Other national groups, including Iranians, Pakistanis and Chinese, have levels of income below the average for all immigrant groups.

Consider the experience of Chinese immigrant Wade Sha, 42, who came to Calgary from Shanghai, where he ran a plant for a German manufacturing company. He was also considering Australia, but an immigration consultant told him he had a better chance of having his application accepted in Canada.

Mr. Sha arrived in 2009 and found work at Pitney Bowes as a salesman, a level lower than he was aiming for. He says he accepts that he has to start at a lower rung in a new country, although he did find it disappointing. His ambition is to become a manager in Canada, but it’s going to be difficult. Even though he speaks nuanced English, he still feels language is a barrier.

“It’s very hard for me to get to where I was in China,” he says. “I can improve my English, my understanding of the culture, but I can never get rid of my accent. I think that’s a barrier for me doing business with the locals. … I can feel it. If I spoke without an accent people would feel more comfortable with me.”

There are also cultural differences that get in the way of the relationships you need to build in business, he said. Hockey is often treated as common ground in Canada, but it’s not a sport he watches or understands. “Guys want to talk about the hockey game last night and I don’t know what to say.”

The prairies call to Europe

At the moment the federal government does little active recruitment for immigrants abroad, but provinces, employers and post-secondary institutions do. And for provinces that traditionally have been less likely to receive immigrants, targeting has become an important component of their strategy.

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall was recently applauded for flying across the Atlantic to encourage young Irish workers to come seek jobs in the booming prairies. And Manitoba – frequently praised for its handling of immigration through the provincial-nominee program – likewise takes aims at groups it believes will be comfortable in the province, which means mostly but not entirely the nationalities experts call “old-source” countries.

Most recently the province has turned its attention to Ukraine to find people interested in settling in its rural areas, knowing that many present-day Manitobans already have Ukrainian roots. As well, however, the province continues to bring in people from the Philippines, a less-traditional source country, but one with a large and successful diaspora in Manitoba. Joining an established community is one thing that helps immigrants from anywhere adjust more easily.

It’s difficult to untangle the factors involved in the economic difficulties experienced by Canada’s more recent immigrants, as Arthur Sweetman and Garnett Picot wrote in a recent paper for the Institute for Research on Public Policy. Language ability aside, they often face a labour market that can’t or won’t make sense of their education and work experience, as well as racial discrimination.

Those barriers may be lower for immigrants from Europe. But Howard Ramos, a sociologist at Dalhousie University, says that is not a strong enough reason to deviate from the nation’s long-held egalitarian values. “To move in that direction would fundamentally change the socially just society that has been built in the last 50 years in modern Canada.”

More pragmatically, while an emphasis on old-source countries might produce better economic outcomes in the short term, it could also have other effects. There may not be enough migrants from English-speaking countries to maintain or increase Canada’s immigration levels, for example. A sudden shift in the attainability of immigration may have an impact on Canada’s ties to a country such as China – studies have shown that trade ties increase through immigration, and losing that advantage could be a much bigger economic drawback than any spending on services for underpaid Chinese immigrants.

Overall it would be a mistake, says Prof. Ramos, to conceive of the uneven outcomes for different immigrant groups as evidence that immigration was failing.

“Immigrants in Canada have a high degree of integration. This [language] policy doesn’t reflect that success at all. It’s creating a problem where I don’t necessarily think a problem exists,” he says. “The points system was introduced to correct the injustices of focusing on culture and language too heavily. It was a society and a time that was much more ethnocentric – and I don’t think it’s a time we should try and return to.”

To find out what immigration looks like in your community, see an interactive look at solutions to Canada's immigration problem and share your own story click here.

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