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New Canadian citizens receive Canadian flags after a citizenship ceremony at the Toronto's CIC office at St. Clair Ave. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
New Canadian citizens receive Canadian flags after a citizenship ceremony at the Toronto's CIC office at St. Clair Ave. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Census figures give Harper ammunition in pitch for reforms Add to ...

Stephen Harper wants people to go where the jobs are. Thousands of Canadians are way ahead of him.

The Prime Minister’s Conservative government is preparing a budget that’s expected to herald a major focus on demographics – transforming immigration, skills training and pensions in an effort to boost long-term growth.

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The first round of data from the 2011 census gives Mr. Harper plenty to work with as he makes his case for these sweeping reforms.

Tens of thousands of people from Ontario – once the engine of the Canadian economy – packed their bags for other provinces. Alberta and Saskatchewan, with their booming resource economies, were the biggest draw.

Meanwhile, Statistics Canada confirms that the aging of Canada’s population will be most pronounced during this decade and the next. Then, from 2031 to 2061, population growth could slow to near zero.

All of this strikes at the core of heated policy debates that Mr. Harper triggered with two major announcements in recent months: that provincial health-care transfers will be capped to grow in line with the economy, and that Ottawa is considering a gradual increase in the eligibility age for Old Age Security to 67 from 65.

Now, virtually everything Ottawa does is being assessed through the prism of demographics.

Immigration

The Prime Minister is promising a more “activist” immigration policy. In practice, officials say this is likely to take shape through the expansion of programs that better match immigrants to jobs and that encourage more young people to move to Canada.

This could mean a greater focus on provincial nominee programs, in which provinces seek out immigrants to meet specific labour force needs. Further, targeting younger immigrants can be accomplished by expanding the “Canadian experience class,” a program that makes it easier for skilled temporary foreign workers and graduating foreign students to stay in Canada as permanent residents.

Yet even as Canada increasingly relies on immigrants as a source of growth, monthly job numbers consistently show unemployment rates are much higher among recent immigrants.

TD Bank economist Francis Fong, who co-authored a report released this week on the lingering problems with Canadian immigration, says governments need to do more to help new immigrants. Efforts to link immigration to specific job needs should be expanded, and the hundreds of settlement agencies should be streamlined to provide more effective help, he said.

Skilled workers

When the Prime Minister was host of a Crown-First Nations gathering in January, his priority was finding ways to match the large population of aboriginal youth with growing skills shortages in the natural resources sector.

More generally, the latest government ads on Canada’s Economic Action Plan – currently running in the lead-up to the budget – put a high degree of emphasis on a handful of programs aimed at helping workers learn new skilled trades.

The remaining needs for skilled labour are likely to be met through immigration.

Pensions

Governments are concerned that a growing population of seniors will devour budgets for pensions and health care, while a shrinking percentage of working age Canadians pays taxes to foot the bill.

Ottawa says demographic changes will make OAS unsustainable in its current form – a view that is challenged by several economists and the Parliamentary budget officer.

Yet the argument for OAS reform has more academic support when it is based on concerns over future economic growth. With a shrinking ratio of working-age Canadians to retirees, Mr. Harper appears to be persuaded by arguments that further incentives are needed to keep people in the work force longer.

“That’s a different argument and I think we should have that argument,” said Parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page, who reported on Wednesday that there are no sustainability concerns with OAS.

Follow on Twitter: @curryb

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