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Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Marco Mendicino holds a press conference in Ottawa on Nov. 12, 2020.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Immigration to Canada dropped 46 per cent in 2020 to the lowest level in just over two decades, as the pandemic restricted border crossings, closed visa offices and slowed travel.

There were 184,370 new permanent residents last year compared with 341,175 in 2019, according to new data from Immigration Canada. That marked the lowest level since 1998.

Ottawa has increased its immigration targets over the next three years to help offset losses from the pandemic. It is unclear whether the country will be able to meet this year’s goal of 401,000 permanent residents given border restrictions and travel bans remain in place to slow the spread of COVID-19.

But with cases starting to fall and vaccinations increasing, the pace of immigration should quicken throughout the year.

“The first quarter this year will be weak, I expect a strong second quarter and much stronger second half,” said Benjamin Tal, deputy chief economist with CIBC, adding that he thought Ottawa would fall short of its goal because of the slow start to the year.

The largest share of immigrants usually end up in Ontario, followed by British Columbia, Quebec and Alberta. Those provinces saw numbers decline by at least 40 per cent year-over-year.

Overall, that led to weaker demand for apartments and condo rentals in the major cities. In Toronto, the largest employment centre in the country, the apartment vacancy rate more than quintupled and average rents dropped.

A spokesperson for Marco Mendicino, the Immigration Minister, said Canada would meet this year’s targets by creating new pathways to permanent residency for those who are already here.

“We’ve rolled out several new policies and programs to help more international students, migrant workers and asylum seekers make Canada their permanent home,” Alexander Cohen said in a recent e-mail.

Ottawa plans to grant permanent resident status to some temporary foreign workers, who would normally be required to return to their home countries when their visas expire. As well, international postsecondary students could be eligible to apply for permanent status as soon as they graduate.

The total population of working-age recent immigrants - those in the country for five years or less - in the labour force was down by 119,000 in January from the same time last year, according to Statistics Canada Labour Force data.

The new immigration targets were announced last fall. Next year the goal is 411,000, up from 361,000; and 421,000 in 2023.

With a report from Tamsin McMahon

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