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Canada’s unique, decades-old, pro-immigration consensus has been broken.

Who broke it? The Trudeau government. Who adulterated a policy that had made for national, non-partisan agreement? The Trudeau government. Who took a system that most Canadians thought was working, and turned it into one that clearly is not? The Trudeau government.

Who introduced the germ of a dark future of radicalized and left-versus-right polarized immigration politics, such as modern Canada has never had? The Trudeau government.

Who can fix it? The Trudeau government.

Like Nixon going to China, a course change will be most widely accepted if it comes from the party that is the most reluctant to change course. That would restore the national consensus while placing the issue outside the realm of partisanship, which is where it long resided.

Of course, if the Liberals do restore the consensus, they’ll lose the possibility of weaponizing immigration in the next election. But they’ll also be serving the national interest, by defusing a bomb they built, before it detonates and rips through Canadian politics.

What would a better immigration policy look like? It would look like what Canada had prior to 2015. Plus a few improvements.

The immigration system is supposed to benefit Canada and Canadians. The refugee stream is different, as it is about admitting people based on their needs. Beyond that, most newcomers to Canada are supposed to be chosen based on Canada’s needs. They are invited into Canada, and invited to become Canadians, based on the long-term economic benefits they can share with us.

We have a wide and welcoming door, and high walls. Both.

We want and need immigrants who are more educated and earn higher incomes than the average Canadian. That’s how we boost the long-term prospects for the economy and leave everyone better off. Focusing on that would give Canada a shot at something other than what we’ve recently experienced, which is a population growing far faster than the economy, and six quarters in a row of sharply falling gross domestic product per capita.

Imagine if Liberal changes to immigration had led to, say, 10,000 new physicians in our hospitals and clinics in 2023.

But as of the third quarter of last year, there were more than 2.5 million temporary foreign residents, up more than tenfold since the year 2000. Most came for low-skill, low-wage jobs. Some were recruited overseas for fast-food restaurants and retail stores; many were given one of an unlimited number of educational visas, often as a pretext for minimum-wage work.

The immigration system’s purpose has been stood on its head by the Liberals. Instead of sharpening a long-standing focus on high-skill and high-wage immigrants, the emphasis has shifted to low-wage guest workers.

Our immigration system is supposed to be about recruiting the best and brightest. Let’s get back to that.

Step One: Greatly reduce the number of student visas. Raise the minimum educational program level eligible for visas: yes to the most in-demand graduate and undergraduate degrees, no to short and low-fi college credentials. Raise the minimum savings requirements for foreign students. And require foreign students to post a bond, refunded with interest if they return home post-graduation, or if they are invited to apply for permanent residency status, but which will be forfeit if they remain in the country uninvited.

At the same time, end the right of most visa students to work while in school. Remove the incentive, for schools and students alike, to game the system. Make it so that coming to study in Canada is about high-level studies, not low-wage employment.

Step Two: Restrict the temporary foreign worker stream to a small number of high-end jobs, not millions of low-paying jobs.

Giving Canadian businesses carte blanche to hire unlimited numbers of minimum-wage workers from overseas is subtracting from GDP per capita, while discouraging the private sector from investing more in productivity-boosting capital and equipment. At the same time, it’s putting downward pressure on the lowest-wage jobs. It’s profoundly counterproductive.

The temporary foreign worker job bank contains more than 11,000 job postings, many for multiple positions. More than half pay $40,000 a year or less, meaning minimum wage or slightly above. Just 2 per cent pay more than $100,000 a year.

This is upside down. With few exceptions, such as the trade-exposed farming sector, there should be no people hired from overseas on temporary work visas for jobs paying less than, say, 150 per cent of the median Canadian wage, or around $100,000.

Recruiting a foreign dentist or computer engineer or skilled construction worker? Go for it. Depressing the wages of the poorest Canadians by recruiting overseas fast-food clerks? Sorry, no.

Step Three: Rely on the points system to decide on who gets permanent residency. Again, we should be prioritizing immigrants with high skills and educations, and the best shots at earning higher incomes than the average Canadian. But the points system, the long-standing genius of Canadian immigration, has been watered down under the Liberals. Instead of aiming high in a war for talent, we’re doing the opposite.

Step Four: Control the border. A wide and welcoming door, paired with high walls, was an unspoken basis of the Canadian immigration consensus. It was well understood by previous governments, Liberal and Conservative alike.

The Trudeau Liberals have been fuzzy on the concept. For example, until 2015, Canada had a visa requirement for travellers from Mexico, because of concerns about large numbers of Mexican tourists flying to Canadian airports and immediately making asylum claims on landing. The Trudeau government removed the visa requirement soon after its election.

In 2015, there were just 110 refugee claims from Mexico made on Canadian soil. Over the past 12 months, there have been more than 24,000. On Thursday, the Premier of Quebec asked the feds to do something. At the end of 2023, Canada had more than 156,000 refugee claims pending – nearly triple the number of just two years ago. These cases will take years to work their way through the refugee-determination bureaucracy.

Liberal brain trust, the choice is yours.

You can restore the national consensus by fixing the parts of the immigration system you broke. Or you can stay the course – which won’t be good for the economy, productivity, housing, higher education, inequality or national unity, but which may give you a wedge issue for the next election.

You can fix the problem, but lose the wedge. Or you can wait for the Conservatives to criticize your immigration mess, and then you can try to weaponize that criticism, turning a practical question of how to run the immigration system for the benefit of Canadians into a moral issue, in which any questioning of your immigration policy and levels will be defined, by you, as racist.

For the sake of the country, choose the first course.

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