Canada will welcome millions of newcomers in the next couple of decades to try to maintain economic growth in the face of an aging population, but experts warn our immigration system is not ready to handle the load.
Despite declining birth rates and an aging citizenry, which threaten the long-term prospects of many major economies, Canada’s population increased at nearly twice the pace of other G7 nations between 2016 and 2021. Statistics Canada predicts the country will continue its growth in the coming decades, to between 42.9 million and 52.5 million by 2043, from 38.2 million in 2021.
Given demographic trends, that growth can only be achieved through immigration, but experts say our existing process for integrating newcomers needs to be more effective.
“We have made many efforts to attract qualified immigrants, but when they come here they don’t end up in the jobs that we want them for, or the jobs that they want to have,” says Luciara Nardon, a professor at Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business.
Ms. Nardon – who recently co-authored a book titled Making Sense of Immigration Work Integration – says the country spends significant resources attracting newcomers with specific skills, but it often makes it difficult for them to put those skills to use.
Ms. Nardon says she believes that more pre-arrival support is needed to match those skills with employers. “[When] you decide to bring someone in, you need a plan to integrate them into the market based on their profession or skills or specific needs, and that plan as far as I know doesn’t exist.”
Solving the challenge will require change at many levels, Ms. Nardon adds. She says governments will need to work with professional associations charged with certifying designations to help employers better understand how to evaluate experience and education from outside the country.
Professional associations are often not equipped to translate education and experience from abroad into local qualifications. Neither are employers, who tend to favour candidates with Canadian institutions and brands on their resumes.
Iain Reeve, the associate director of immigration for the Conference Board of Canada, also fears that the country’s aging infrastructure isn’t adequately prepared for the anticipated population boom.
“Infrastructure generally speaking is a huge issue, both in larger cities and in smaller communities, and that includes housing of course but also things like road infrastructure, number of schools, utilities, public transit, hospitals and other health-care infrastructure,” he says. “It’s essential that these things are planned together – we can’t assume a fixed population while another part of government is designing a process to help our population grow.”
Mr. Reeve adds that infrastructure development can’t be limited to the country’s major cities, as newcomers are essential to ensuring the economic growth of smaller communities.
“Immigrants don’t all want to live in big cities, they just often end up there because that’s where the best supports and opportunities are,” he explains. “If we can direct them toward the economic opportunities that exist in communities across Canada, and if we ensure that there are enough supports there for them, then people will stay in those places.”
As it stands, few immigrants are able to settle in those smaller communities for practical reasons.
“A lot of those communities don’t have the infrastructure in place to welcome newcomers,” says Alfred Lam, executive director of the Centre for Immigrant & Community Services (CICS). “On the surface it might be a good solution to the housing problem, but then you also have to take into account other needs like employment, and health-care supports, like can they find a family doctor that speaks their language?”
Mr. Lam says newcomers face many challenges that prevent them from fully contributing to the Canadian economy, and those problems are often intertwined. Solutions need to incorporate a range of factors all working together in tandem.
“We can give someone an absolutely fantastic workshop on resume writing, but when that person goes home and enters into a situation where there is domestic abuse, or mental health issues or they live with inadequate housing, that work isn’t going to go very far,” Mr. Lam says. “We have settlement services, we have employment supports, we have language training, all kinds of different pieces, but we need to be flexible enough to put them together in the right way at the right time for the right person, and that’s the work we have ahead of us.”
Mr. Lam adds that Canada has a lot of strengths when it comes to integrating newcomers into its economy, but he emphasizes that far too many fall through the cracks of piecemeal solutions and one-off programs.
“We can’t look at issues in isolation,” he says. “Everything needs to be done holistically – we need the entire system to be working hand-in-hand – and that’s the area where we need to improve the most.”