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They filled the pool with a firehose. Now they’re bailing with thimbles.

After years of the Trudeau government flooring the growth accelerator on temporary immigration, Immigration Minister Marc Miller last week announced a tap of the brakes. The overdue move is welcome – though so far it’s more pledge than plan, with many details about execution (not this government’s strong suit) still to come.

Mr. Miller’s pledge is that Canada’s temporary resident population, which the Liberals encouraged to rapidly grow to 2.5 million by last October, or a bit more than a record 6 per cent of the population, will be lowered to 5 per cent.

But getting there will take the government three years. Getting here took just three months.

That’s how long it took to raise the number of temporary residents from the previous record high of 2.2 million last July – triple the level of 2015 – to last October’s 2.5 million.

(Update: Statistics Canada released its latest quarterly population estimate on Wednesday. It shows that, as of Jan. 1, the number of temporary residents had risen to 2.7 million.)

But if Mr. Miller’s goal is to reduce the share of temporary residents – visa students, refugee claimants and above all people on work visas – to 5 per cent by 2027, how many people is that?

Be wary of simple solutions on the foreign student issue

In three years, 5 per cent of the population will be roughly 2.1 million people. Maybe a bit more. That means the government’s plan is to spend the next three years lowering the temporary population from the heights it hit last October all the way back to where it was … three months earlier.

Three months to summit Everest. Three years to climb down to the previous highest point.

However, if the government can stick to Mr. Miller’s modest target, it would mark a major policy change. In the 12 months prior to last Oct. 1, Canada added more than 800,000 net new temporary foreign residents. Getting to where Mr. Miller wants to go calls for net temporary foreign arrivals of negative 150,000 a year, for three years. It means three years of more temporary residents leaving, or becoming permanent residents, than arriving.

(Update: Statscan’s latest estimate of a temporary resident population of 2.7 million at the start of this year means that reaching the 5 per cent target will require a larger net temporary immigration rate – roughly negative 200,000 arrivals a year, for three years).

But three years is an eternity in politics. For a government that must face the voters no later than 2025, it’s a year and a half longer than eternity.

As such, what Mr. Miller served up last Thursday should not be consumed without first adding many large grains of extra-coarse salt.

One reason why was supplied by the person seated next to him at last week’s news conference – Employment Minister Randy Boissonnault. He’s responsible for the labour rules that, particularly since 2022, make it so easy to bring in visa workers from overseas.

Mr. Boissonnault announced a tightening of some of those rules, but left many looser than before 2022. For example, until two years ago, employers could not hire low-wage visa workers unless the local unemployment rate was less than 6 per cent. That limit is not being reinstated. Also prior to 2022, there was a 10-per-cent cap on the share of low-wage temporary foreign workers an employer could hire. The Liberals raised that to 20 per cent, and even 30 per cent in some sectors. The cap in most sectors is being lowered to 20 per cent – but not the previous 10 per cent.

We’re not in a population trap, we’re in an investment desert

In a telling moment, Mr. Boissonnault said of the low-wage temporary worker program: “I don’t like the name of that stream. We’re going to work on changing that.”

The program should be cancelled, not rebranded. Canada needs selective, best-and-brightest immigration, not a suppress-wages-at-the-bottom scheme.

In all of this, the Trudeau government is caught in a bind of its own making. It found, to its evident delight, that sharply ramping up the number of people arriving on notionally temporary permits was easy. To govern is to choose, but the government discovered that the less choosing it did – and the more rubber-stamping of visas it encouraged – the easier governing appeared to be.

It is now discovering that unwinding things, even a little, is more difficult. It will be lobbied heavily to eviscerate its modest promises, and to quietly reverse this course reversal.

That is also where Liberal predilections reside. They didn’t just break the immigration system. They broke it with great enthusiasm. And their repair job is still mostly blueprints, drawn up haltingly and under the duress of public opinion.

Compared with Europe and the United States, Canada has long had a wider immigration door, but also far more control – an aspect of the “order” in peace, order and good government – over who enters. That is what underpinned public support for immigration.

And controlling the door was important because once somebody gets into Canada, whether as a temporary worker, student or even tourist, it isn’t easy to get them to leave. Not if they don’t want to. Ottawa decides who gets in but has much less control over, or information about, how many people whose visas have expired, and who are no longer legally allowed to reside in Canada, nevertheless remain.

In the months and years to come, that is likely to be the final aftershock of Liberal immigration policy.

Restoring sense and sanity to the system won’t be easy. Breaking is easier than repairing.

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