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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 ...

Across the West, provinces are encouraging young people to learn the skills demanded by the labour market. But even if everyone who wanted to work was working, there would still be jobs available. Al Wahlstrom, an engineer with Suncor Energy Services, says it would help to get aboriginal people and other disadvantaged groups more involved in the work force, but that would eliminate just a portion of the labour gap.

And Alberta needs much more than just tradespeople. It faces shortages in almost every sector. Recently, for example, the province sent a delegation to Europe to recruit Mandarin, French and Spanish teachers for the burgeoning language programs in its schools, and it is continually trying to recruit nurses and truck drivers, among others.

Permanent migration is far more desirable than the rapid expansion of the temporary work force. Temporary workers lack the stability to set down roots and build communities, and are often separated from their families. After four years they're required to go home, but there are estimates of a growing group, perhaps a few hundred thousand, who have overstayed their visas and now live undocumented in Canada.

Back at the police station, the Brits and Irish are raising long strips of silver metal into place. At least three see “temporary” as a label they are eager to shake. Keiron Tanner, the cladders' superintendent, applied in February to stay here permanently.

In his hometown, a little ways from Oxford, England, he had watched his own cladding company, with 14 employees, careen into a wall of economic misfortune. Bidding for jobs grew so fierce that he was flirting with losses just to get work.

So when Mr. Tanner saw an ad in a local paper, he leaped at the chance to come to Canada. A half-dozen of his workers have since followed him, to a place that has proved welcoming beyond expectations.

“I was worried, because you don't want to go somewhere and have it hostile towards you,” he says. “I haven't had a single issue yet, touch wood, with guys saying, ‘Oh, you stole our jobs.' ”

On April 26, Mr. Tanner marked two years in Canada. He has a Canadian wife, and a new home – one whose bitter winters, he says, are outweighed by sunny summers devoid of the rain that dogs Britain.

“For me,” he says, “I knew after a year or so that this is where I'd be staying.”

The question is whether the government feels the same way.

3. Take a number

The experts and Ottawa generally agree that Canada needs to welcome more of the most capable immigrants. The dispute is over just how high those numbers should be.

Last year, Canada admitted just under 250,000 immigrants in total. It will probably be close to 250,000 this year too – which happens to be the same as the average for the past 10 years: In 1992, Canada welcomed roughly 250,000 immigrants. On this question, the country seems stuck in place.

It wasn't always this way. At the turn of the 20th century, when Canada was still expanding westward, it aggressively advertised and recruited abroad to bring in as many settlers as possible. From 1903 to 1913, immigration levels were never lower than the equivalent of 2 per cent of the country's population, including the people interior minister Clifford Sifton called “stalwart peasants in sheepskin coats” – the hardy Eastern Europeans who settled the Prairies. The intake hit 400,000 (more than 5 per cent of population) just before the start of the First World War.

While immigration has never reached those heights since, the evolution of Canadian immigration policy was generally expansive, with exceptions often based on racial biases (including some of the more shameful moments in Canadian history). In the 1960s, immigration was opened to people of all races and national origins, and the introduction of the points system created a more level playing field that rewarded higher education.

Immigration levels increased substantially under Brian Mulroney's Progressive Conservatives in the late 1980s, which contributed to politicizing the issue.

In the early 1990s, policy-makers took advice from the late economist Alan Green, who suggested pegging immigration around the historical average of 1 per cent of population. The figure became a central Liberal platform plank in the period, though all three major parties have advocated it at various times, including the Conservatives as early as 1962.

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