Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

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

Our Time to Lead

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

Between now and 2021, a million jobs are expected to go unfilled across Canada. Ottawa is making reforms to the immigration system but isn't going far enough. We need to radically boost immigration numbers. With the right people, Canada can be an innovative world power. Without them, we'll drain away our potential.

More related to this story

1. The Manitoba experiment

Arriving into Steinbach, Man., an hour southeast of Winnipeg, you find a quiet, conservative community, the kind of place that has twice as many churches (22) as traffic lights (11). But continue on and you see some sights you might not expect in a prairie hamlet of 13,500: a Paraguayan food store; two Filipina-run nail salons; and, when you reach the western edge, a 25-acre soccer complex that has become the hub of local life.

As an outpost of the global game in the geographic centre of the nation of hockey, the soccer arena is a symbol of the transformation that has swept through Steinbach in the new millennium – one that could be a lesson to the whole country.

Not long ago, in the late 1990s, Steinbach feared that it might join rural Canada's casualty list. Young people were leaving for opportunities in Winnipeg or Calgary, and even businesses that were thriving, such as a window manufacturer, could not find enough skilled workers to keep up with demand.

Local leaders, says mayor Chris Goertzen, were searching for a way forward. Then they caught wind of what was happening a hundred kilometres away, in a place with similar problems.

In Winkler, Man., an immigrant from Paraguay named Adele Dyck, who sat on the Chamber of Commerce, heard through family connections about skilled workers in Germany who were interested in coming to Canada, but couldn't qualify under immigration rules that favoured university graduates. She contacted the federal and provincial governments to say she would get local employers to guarantee jobs if the Germans were admitted. They agreed, and what began with 50 immigrants in Winkler became in 1998 the country's first “provincial nominee” program: Manitoba was the first province other than Quebec to gain the power to select and resettle a portion of each year's new immigrants for itself.

And that is how Steinbach found its solution. The owner of the Loewen window plant contacted Ms. Dyck about finding 150 to 200 skilled German employees.

“They wanted people who were trainable, people who were very capable of learning,” says Ms. Dyck, who is now a professional immigration consultant. “Even though not many spoke English, language was never really a problem. At some point, they had over 300 of our clients working for them.”

That was just the beginning. Since the mid-1990s, Steinbach has grown by 60 per cent, one of the fastest rates in the country. Last year, the region welcomed about 900 immigrants from 40 countries into industries as diverse as pharmaceuticals, trucking and hog farming. The city had to expand its industrial park and then open a new one. National chain grocers, restaurants and department stores are setting up shop. Steinbach has been revitalized.

What ailed the Steinbach of old is the creeping malignancy that threatens all of Canada today. The shortage of skilled labour in the Alberta oil sands and Saskatchewan potash mines has become a national issue. But a similar lack of people power is plaguing the ambitious but underdeveloped secondary cities of Ontario, and in Atlantic Canada a third of the population will be over 65 in less than two decades. The Conference Board of Canada estimates that over the next 10 years, there will be a million jobs going wanting across the country. This shortage is a drag on Canada's potential to innovate and compete into the future.

Unless Canadians suddenly start having radically larger families, the only logical answer is the same as Steinbach's: The country needs to dramatically increase its immigration levels – perhaps even double them, at least in the case of immigrants in the “economic” category (which includes skilled workers, provincial nominees, those with prior Canadian experience, entrepreneurs, investors and their families).

The nation's great challenge for the 21st century will be not only to locate and attract the people Canada needs, give them rich opportunities and integrate them into communities, but also to understand and embrace the ways they will reshape this country.

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.”

That kind of change does not come without friction – there have been moments of culture shock, particularly in local classrooms. But over all, the Russian-Germans, as locals call them, are well accepted in Steinbach and beyond. Many apprenticed in the trades in Europe, and every day, Mr. Huese says, you can see the steady flow of their pickup trucks heading down the highway for building sites in Winnipeg.

Evelyna Prochorow, 21, came from Kazakhstan by way of what her family found a crowded, unwelcoming Germany. She was 8, the sixth of 13 children, and barely spoke a word of English. A decade later, she graduated near the top of her high-school class. She is a broker at Harvest Insurance, her sister is a legal assistant nearby, and the evangelical church that is dear to them is here (with more under construction). Unlike many small-town Canadians her age, Ms. Prochorow has no desire to be anywhere else.

2. Bridging gaps on the oil patch

While Steinbach is the small-town microcosm of Canada's demographic crisis, the epicentre is in Alberta, where oil-fuelled expansion is voraciously eating up all the skilled labour it can find and hungers for more.

“Labour shortages are going to be the single biggest impediment to economic growth in Alberta for the foreseeable future,” says Ben Brunnen, chief economist at the Calgary Chamber of Commerce. “At the end of the day, we just don't have the people to fill the jobs that are being created. … We can't alleviate our labour needs without tapping into immigration.”

On the southwestern outskirts of Edmonton, lilted speech fills the trailer where the cladders – men who install metal roofs and exteriors – stop for a quick morning break. Of the 10 men from Clark Builders who are erecting a new police station, only one is a Canadian, from Newfoundland. The remainder are sign-bearers for the British Isles, their English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish roots displayed by flags on their helmets and, for Irishman Brian O'Donnell, a tousle of red hair that slips out from beneath his hard hat.

To Canada, they are temporary foreign workers. To Europe, they are economic emigrants.

Tom and Jimmy Sutton are brothers from Brackley, England, both working on the Clark site. Another brother works at a different Edmonton construction company. They have homes, cars and girlfriends here. And a fourth brother, who's in information technology, has this very morning been accepted to a “working holiday” program that will bring him to Alberta, too.

“Honestly, the best decision I've ever made in my life, by far,” Jimmy says. “Back home, you're struggling. There's no work around, so you get behind on your bills. It's hard to get by. Over here, you can work hard and get paid well for it, and you have a better quality of life.”

Prairie fire in the job market

Western Canada is drawing temporary workers from across the planet: Polish welders, Filipino retail workers, Mexican electricians and Chilean mechanics. As they arrive, stepping off planes into blizzards and uncertainty, they are changing the complexion of the western Canadian work force.

Clark Builders currently employs 31 foreign workers out of its total of 770, and is actively seeking to add dozens more – carpenters, project managers and more cladders. With a raft of oil-sands work about to begin, the company says, it could easily double its number of foreign workers by year's end, joining a broad industry push.

That is not to say transatlantic hiring is simple. Earlier this year, Clark Builders flew managers to Manchester, hoping to find 15 workers. They had posted ads and received 125 résumés. After 27 interviews, they made offers to 12 people and got nine. For a first attempt, says Gerald Clark, the company's senior manager of human resources, they were pleased: “I would suspect we'll be back there later this year.”

In theory, rising wages and job opportunities should attract plenty of Canadian workers to Alberta, and training and technology should be applied to make the work force more productive. But those economic adjustments take time that Canada may not have.

“We know from the previous round of big expansions out in the oil patch,” says Queen's University economist Charles Beach, that “the supply of skills just doesn't grow quickly enough. The price of expansion became so high that many just tailed it off. They've learned from that and don't want to see it again.”

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.

Even that relatively modest target, however, has never been hit hasn't been hit since 1967: In 1992, the 250,000 figure was more than 30,000 short of 1 per cent. The gap has only widened since. To reach 1 per cent today, Canada would have to admit about 347,000 people.

Indeed, organizations as wide-ranging as the Royal Bank, the Ontario Coalition of Agencies Serving Immigrants, the Conference Board of Canada (an economic research group) and the Canada West Foundation (an Alberta think tank) all have been calling for immigration to grow to 340,000 or beyond.

“Immigration certainly can be sustained at significantly higher levels,” says Robert Vineberg, a former director-general of citizenship and immigration for the prairie region and a fellow at the Canada West Foundation. “These numbers may seem large, but at 1 per cent of the population it's not all that much, particularly when we have an aging work force.”

Some analysts paint a stark picture: In the next 15 years, Canada could become a “Northern Tiger,” if it commits to a major boost in immigration levels, a more effective selection system, tax incentives for immigrants to settle outside the big cities and a plan to retain them, said an April report from international consultants Deloitte and the Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA). The alternative scenarios are a “Lost Decade,” in which Canada falls further behind, or at best an “unsustainable prosperity,” in which a complacent Canada continues as it's been doing, and emerges unprepared for the next phase of its development.

“We certainly need more immigration than the status quo,” says Bill Greenhalgh, chief executive officer of the HRPA. “We need to get the right people, prescreen their qualifications and change our philosophy to truly welcome and integrate them.”

Mr. Kenney, the Immigration Minister, points to polls showing Canadians do not want higher intake levels, and says he does not want to endanger our enviable social consensus on the issue. That could be the case if increased immigration were perceived to have raised unemployment or poverty. But he has not totally closed off the option.

“We can get to reviewing the question of levels once we've fixed the programs,” Mr. Kenney told the press in March. “Once we've moved to this fast, flexible and pro-active system, once we've seen higher levels of income, once we're doing a better job of matching the newcomers with the job shortages, then I think it would be sensible to look potentially at higher levels.”

Immigration is a huge adjustment, and the first five or 10 years after arrival are often difficult. That effect has increased as Canada has drawn from a wider pool of nations, with more cultural and accreditation differences.

Recent immigrants earn only about 60 per cent as much as the Canadian-born, whereas in the late 1970s it was nearly 90 per cent, according to research by McMaster economist Arthur Sweetman and former StatsCan director Garnett Picot.

After 10 years in Canada, however, immigrants' employment rates and earnings start to approach those of the Canadian-born. Among those in their prime working years, immigrants are nearly 60 per cent more likely to have a university degree than those born here (37 per cent compared with 22).

And their children have become perhaps this country's greatest asset: One of the best indicators of whether a Canadian child will go to university, says economist Ross Finnie, is not the parents' levels of education but their countries of birth, since the children of almost every immigrant group outperform kids with parents born in Canada.

Taking the long view

It is short-sighted, then, to evaluate immigrants' success solely on their income or their ability to get a job quickly in their field – or indeed, on any purely economic terms. A nation's horizons extend for generations. In their daily struggle and sacrifice, every first generation of immigrants is laying a foundation for the future.

“We miss the human side if we boil [immigration]down to this economic calculation,” U of T's Prof. Studin says. “That reduces a complex story to something very mechanical.”

At the same time, the ideal way to minimize any turbulence is to follow Mr. Kenney's lead and emphasize economic-class immigrants, with their higher skill levels, lower unemployment and greater earning power.

At the moment, Canada accepts 150,000 economic immigrants a year. If that figure doubled to 300,000, and the other categories – refugees and family-reunification cases – stayed constant, total immigration would be in the range of 400,000 people, or a little more than 1 per cent.

That would mean economic migrants would make up about 75 per cent of Canada's annual immigration, up from 60 per cent today. It's not as big a jump as it may seem: Over the past decade, Canada has allowed its temporary-foreign-worker program to balloon, bringing in 180,000 more temporary workers, such as the cladders in Edmonton, every year. Replacing that number with more permanent immigration would be a more stable solution, giving those workers a common stake in the future with their Canadian neighbours.

Doubling economic immigration would send a signal to every talented prospective migrant around the world. Right now, the economic turmoil that is gripping Europe has raised the issue for thousands of well-educated, skilled, multilingual workers. In Spain, unemployment has hit nearly 25 per cent, and youth unemployment has surpassed 50 per cent. Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia have recently been recruiting in Ireland.

By contrast, as China and India, two of the largest source countries, become more prosperous, their pools of applicants may shrink. They may even join the U.S., Australia and South America in competing with Canada for talent. Canada needs to distinguish itself.

As the increase rolled out, Canada would have to monitor the outcomes and ensure that the policy was achieving its goals. Then, over the long term, immigration would have to rise even higher to sustain growth, since according to current projections, by 2031, more Canadians will die every year than are born. By that time, immigration could grow to 500,000 annually – fully double the total today.

And Prof. Studin's 100-million-strong nation would become more than an abstract dream.

4. The immigrant idea factory

Immigration also can be a boon in less predictable ways. By bringing together ideas and experiences, it can fertilize imagination and invention. In his new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, American writer Jonah Lehrer, who specializes in tracing the implications of neuroscience, suggests that “ages of excess genius are always accompanied by new forms of human mixing.”

According to the U.S. patent office, Mr. Lehrer says, “immigrants invent patents at double the rate of non-immigrants, which is why a 1-per-cent increase in immigrants with college degrees leads to a 15-per-cent rise in patent production.”

In that spirit, in the industrial heart of Kitchener, Ont., a 19th-century brick tannery offers a window on Canada's post-industrial future.

The Communitech Hub is a space where the academic world of the University of Waterloo incubator programs meets the real world of entrepreneurs and investors. On average, there is one new business born here every day. And the bright minds who sit hunched over laptops in sneakers, jeans and Buddy Holly glasses are a multi-ethnic mix, including many immigrants and children of immigrants. The white board next to the empty takeout boxes spells out their ambition in huge block letters: “We are not leaving until this is done.”

Vigen Nazarian, 51, a Canadian born in Iran, is at Communitech meeting with an app developer. Mr. Nazarian is on his fourth tech start-up, a company called Antvibes, which tackles one little challenge of a diverse society by providing audio of the correct pronunciation of a name from a business card or e-mail signature.

In his opinion, people of different backgrounds take different approaches to problem solving, and with unusually successful outcomes: In the U.S., a quarter of energy and technology start-ups launched in the period from 1995 to 2005 had at least one immigrant as a key founder, and nearly half of the top 50 venture-funded companies were founded or co-founded by immigrants.

“Today, you're building a global product,” Mr. Nazarian says. “Gone are the days of a product with only local reach. I would love to have product-development ideas coming from immigrants who have a different perspective.”

Upstairs from the Hub is a Google branch office, an ever-present reminder of how quickly a company with a bright idea can grow. And across the hall is John Baker, CEO and founder of Desire2Learn, one of the darlings of the Canadian tech sector, which produces software for teaching, assessing and analyzing student learning.

Mr. Baker's company has grown to 420 employees from 140 two years ago; it aims to approach 600 by the end of the year. But he has 120 jobs that he can't find the talent to fill. In some cases, he has pored over 500 résumés, primarily from Canadians, without turning up a viable candidate.

Namir Anani, president of the Information Communications and Technology Council, says his industry forecasts predict that there will be 106,000 unfilled jobs in the ICT field in just four years. Immigration will have to help address that shortage, he says.

Mr. Baker agrees: “Our industry thrives on finding the best and the brightest from around the world.”

But if a company's growth is impeded, it can miss its moment. Mr. Baker has gone abroad to hire before. Though he found the process cumbersome, he found someone from Finland with a rare set of skills who has been an important asset to the company. An employee of Brazilian background was extremely useful in understanding South American education systems – how the curriculum works there, and which exams are the most important.

Right now, Desire2Learn is looking for people deeply familiar with European education systems, their next target for expansion.

“Having a global work force helps us create products that serve a global marketplace,” Mr. Baker says. “If we don't have the skill set to help us understand how to serve those markets, we can't do business there.”

5. The devil and other details

Tamara Fernandez Lima and her husband are economic-class immigrants from Cuba. They initially landed in St. John's, but hated the weather and heard there was more opportunity out West. Within four days of touching down in Calgary in January, 2010, they both had jobs.

“It wasn't a dream job, but it was a job, and we needed to get established,” Ms. Lima says. “For us, it was like heaven.”

Not content with one position, within weeks they had several more. Ms. Lima has a graduate degree in psychology and worked as vice-president of human resources at a Cuban government-security company. In Calgary, she would start her day at 10 a.m. at a women's clothing store, while her husband washed dishes at a restaurant. He had another dishwashing job in the evening, followed by a cleaning job at Dairy Queen – and then they would rendezvous at Pizza Hut at around 1 a.m. and to make pizza dough until 6 a.m. Ms. Lima would go home for three hours of sleep and then start again.

“We barely slept until my husband found something closer to his field,” she says.

He now installs home and office alarms, not far from his expertise as an electrical technician, while Ms. Lima eventually worked her way up to a more appropriate job too, handling payroll at a Safeway corporate office. They recently bought a condominium and are expecting their first child. Both are continuing to upgrade their education, Ms. Lima by taking a certificate in human-resources management at the University of Calgary.

“We haven't finished yet,” Ms. Lima says. “I'm not yet in my dream job, but this is one of the steps along the way.”

Their story is a reminder that immigrating is far from easy, and expanding it will not be simple either. Taking on more immigrants would require more employees at Citizenship and Immigration to screen and select newcomers in time to be more responsive to the demands of employers. It would require more money for settlement work and for promoting Canada abroad.

To maximize the benefits, Canada would have to get immigrants of the right age. As McMaster's Prof. Sweetman points out, they should fill the gaps in Canada's population structure, and right now that would mean targeting people in their mid-30s.

Canada also has to get newcomers to smaller centres, as envisioned in Deloitte and HRPA's Northern Tiger scenario. In 2006, 70 per cent of recent immigrants lived in Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver, which have felt the stresses of housing, job and infrastructure crunches.

By contrast, immigrants can halt population decline in smaller areas. And if communities and local employers have a role in selecting them, their outcomes tend to improve.

Still, any large immigration influx puts pressure on public services. In Steinbach's case, it was the schools that felt it first.

Watch out for the ‘25th frame'

Superintendent Ken Klassen remembers scrambling to deal with the sheer number of newcomers who kept showing up without warning in his classrooms. “We got huge families, 10 to 13 kids and one in every grade,” he says. “Classes were getting new kids on a weekly basis.” And most of the newcomers did not speak English.

But the problems did not stop at finding more classrooms and teachers. There were cultural confrontations that threw everyone off. Russian-German parents objected to yoga in gym class, for example – saying its Eastern religious roots conflicted with their Christian beliefs.

They felt the same way about aboriginal dream catchers in classrooms, and ghost stories at Halloween.

Most astonishing of all was the immigrants' objection to any educational video, even the most innocuous: The parents suspected that each second of video carried a hidden “25th frame” that contained subliminal anti-Christian messages.

Mr. Klassen, who is descended from German-speaking immigrants himself, met with the concerned parents. Remember, he says, that they were raised in the Soviet Union, where they developed a deep suspicion of authority and a fierce protectiveness over their religious freedoms. He assured them that the 25th-frame story was not true, but he agreed that students could opt out of videos or yoga if they chose.

It took as long as five years for Steinbach to adjust, Mr. Klassen says. By then, the migration was coming from all over the world, not just Germany. “From being almost a monoculture before, we now have up to 40 cultures represented in our schools,” he says.

In 1999, the schools had 20 educational assistants for languages and special needs. Today, they have more than 200.

Yet Mr. Klassen is totally enthusiastic about the final result. Vocational classes, once a dumping ground, have become a centre of excellence thanks to the trades interests of the immigrants. There are two new schools under construction, the first since 1973 (when “I was one of the first students through the door,” Mr. Klassen recalls, chuckling). And as the first wave of immigrants' children are now starting families, an “echo boom” is about to hit that may be bigger than the first.

Richard Harder, a settlement worker in Steinbach, has been working with newcomers for years. In many cases, he says regretfully, immigrants who arrive in middle age, speaking little English, are not as successfully integrated: They can live comfortably in their own society, interacting only as much as is necessary with the broader community to buy their groceries, send their kids to school and receive public services. It's not uncommon in Steinbach to see an earnest seven-year-old translating for a parent in a government office.

But their children all integrate, he says, largely through the public schools, as generations of immigrants have done before them. And the society around them learns other lessons.

Last summer, Mr. Harder watched as his recently immigrated neighbours put their teenage sons to the task of clearing every inch of their small acreage of trees, bushes and rocks. It was long, backbreaking work, day after day. He marvelled at the boys' diligent ethic, noting that his own sons could not be roused from playing video games in the basement.

When the clearing was done, the neighbour wandered over and offered to have his sons do the same for Mr. Harder's property too. He declined, explaining that he preferred the disorder of trees and bushes. The neighbour was puzzled, and persisted. It became an odd standoff, with each side struggling to grasp the other's position.

“We explained to them our Canadian view on that and they explained their view on it. They thought that it looks more cleaned up … more orderly,” Mr. Harder says. “We chose not to. And in the end they were okay with that.”

In a small way, that's the story of immigration in Canada: It reshapes the social landscape, while negotiating boundaries with the sensibilities that came before. The question now, when necessity and ambition demand that we welcome newcomers in greater numbers and at a brisker pace, is whether we can maintain the peaceful tenor of that process – and where we'll find the limits of our abilities to accommodate each other's points of view.

As we stress immigrants' skill sets, will we still be able to harmonize our values? How will the new priorities change the mix of faces in the Canadian crowd? And what national virtues will we emphasize as we circle the world in search of recruits? Our future depends on how we answer such questions – and the time to begin the debate is now.

– With a report from Nathan VanderKlippe

Single page

Follow on Twitter: @FriesenJoe

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories