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(SHAUN BEST/SHAUN BEST/REUTERS)
(SHAUN BEST/SHAUN BEST/REUTERS)

Our Time to Lead

Why Canada needs a flood of immigrants Add to ...

Ottawa's plan falls short

When immigrants arrive, they not only fill gaps in the work force but pay taxes and spend money on housing, transport and consumer goods. Productive capacity increases and there is a ripple effect across the economy. And studies show that their offspring tend to be among the country's best-educated and initiative-taking young people.

It's not that the federal government is blind to the issue. Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney is crossing the country to promote his reforms of the system, trying to make it more responsive to the needs of employers and the economy. But he says he has no intention of boosting the actual number of immigrants Canada admits annually, despite demands from nearly every provincial government.

On that level, the federal plan seems inadequate to the looming challenge. Today, there are 4.2 working-aged Canadians for every senior citizen, making contributions to cover retirees' pensions and health care. By 2031, that ratio will be cut in half. The tax base will shrink, growth will slow and labour shortages will become even more dire. Immigration can't completely cure a problem of that scale, but it can help to alleviate the symptoms.

Already, in 2012, all the growth in the country's labour force comes from immigration. Within two decades, barring an improbable baby boom, immigration will account for all population growth too.

Luckily, Canada has an advantage: The country has the highest per-capita rate of immigration in the world, a program that commands widespread public support. While there would be resistance, expanding immigration is not the political impossibility it would be for some competing nations. And with good reason: With 34 million people, this country remains highly underpopulated, for all its vast geography.

The motivations for growing out of that awkward middle phase – between the northern hinterland we once were and the thriving modern power we could be – stretch far beyond short-term calculations of labour markets and pension balance sheets.

As University of Toronto public policy professor Irvin Studin puts it, “We're losing the idea of building the country.” Prof. Studin argues that the country should set its sights on swelling to as many as 100 million people. This new Canada would become a far more influential consumer market, a more diverse and imaginative producer and a much more robust and self-sustaining culture. Its voice would become more prominent in international affairs.

When history looks back, what seemed like a temporary western labour shortage could turn out to be the impetus that prompted Canada to embrace its destiny as a nation of immigration.

Can we really handle so many?

The idea of a radical boost in newcomers, even skilled and educated ones, will strike some people as crazy, experts included. They will point to the difficulty many immigrants have getting their credentials recognized, and the social disruption that can spring from culture clash. Steinbach's example suggests that those problems are more than manageable, with the appropriate commitment and resources.

The immigrants under Manitoba's provincial-nominee program have education levels three times higher than the provincial average. The Institute for Research on Public Policy in Manitoba has found that “almost everyone who wanted to work was working” – nearly 85 per cent were in the labour force within three months of their arrival, not always in their chosen fields but generally progressing toward that goal.

Steinbach residents know they have benefited. Orville Giesbrecht, co-owner of Harvest Insurance, says his business has expanded to 21 employees from seven, because all the new arrivals need to insure their homes and cars – and he has made a point of catering to them by hiring employees who speak their languages.

Steinbach's largest immigrant group is composed of German-speaking families from the former Soviet Union, notably Kazakhstan, who had lived in Germany since the fall of communism. They were drawn to the promise of abundant land in an area that fit their conservative religious values: It helped that Steinbach's population is descended from the German-speaking Mennonites who arrived a century ago.

One of the first signs of the demographic shift, Mr. Giesbrecht says, was a sudden explosion in demand for wood-stove insurance.

“They have lots of children and they chop their own wood for heat and have a few chickens and other animals for food,” says Sjoerd Huese, president of the Chamber of Commerce, himself originally from the Netherlands. “Construction has just been unreal. We've gone from 20 or 30 housing starts a year to 100.”

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