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The Canadian flag flies atop the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill as pedestrians make their way along Sparks Street Mall in Ottawa on Nov. 9, 2021.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Canada’s immigration system used to be the envy of the world.

Note my use of the past tense.

To appreciate what was good about Canada’s previous immigration strategy – the one followed until recently through governments Progressive Conservative, Conservative and Liberal – contrast it with the dysfunction of our friends down south.

Since the 1980s, the United States has had relatively low legal immigration compared with Canada. The U.S. also wasn’t particularly focused on admitting the highly educated and highly skilled. And there was an unofficial immigration stream – called illegal immigration or undocumented immigration, depending on one’s politics – that involved millions of people, most in low-skill, low-wage jobs.

In 2015, when the Trudeau Liberals came into office, Canada was already a high-immigration country, with a rate two-and-a-half times higher than the U.S. More importantly, Canada was a smart immigration country, with immigration selection built around the points system, which sent educated, skilled, young immigrants to the front of the line.

Both countries’ immigration had long been a mix of family reunification, refugees and economic immigrants, but Canada put the accent on the latter. Within the economic stream, our points system put the emphasis on people who were more educated or skilled than the average Canadian, and whose contribution could boost not just gross domestic product, but GDP per capita.

A skilled immigrant doesn’t just grow the size of the economic pie. They’re likely to grow it at a rate greater than the rising number of forks in the pie.

As for the U.S., it stood out for having a large pool of permanently temporary immigrants, most filling low-wage jobs. In 2015, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security estimated that there were 12 million people classified as illegal aliens in the country.

Canada’s own count was unclear, but clearly far lower.

And that was at least partly because of another bipartisan Canadian policy choice. This country had long devoted considerable efforts to making it hard to enter or remain in Canada without permission. People from countries whose citizens had a record of overstaying tourist visas found it extremely difficult to get a tourist visa.

A 2017 World Economic Forum survey ranked Canada as having among the world’s most stringent travel visa rules, placing us at 120th out of 136 countries. But that this was a feature of the Canadian system, not a bug.

We had a wider door than the U.S., yet taller walls. The welcome mat and the walls were complimentary, not contradictory. Canada was a high immigration country with unusually high public support for immigration. Why? Because the manner, scale, makeup and regularity of immigration clearly benefitted Canada, and Canadians.

Our immigration approach was successful, stable and boring.

In 2013, the U.S. Senate passed the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act. The bill died in the House of Representatives because the Republican leadership refused to take it up – they wanted to campaign against illegal immigration, not fix it – but in the Senate it was supported by the entire Democratic caucus, plus a third of Republicans.

The legislation proposed a points system to focus admissions on skilled immigrants; more opportunities for visa students who earned advanced degrees in science, technology and engineering to remain in the U.S.; and strong measures to discourage illegal immigration.

Had it become law, it would have given the U.S. a more Canadian-style immigration system.

A lot has changed over the past decade. But not so much in the U.S.

Since 2015, the Trudeau government – with the co-operation of the provinces, educational institutions and business – has remade our immigration system. Without anyone noticing, and without public debate, it has become more American.

What gets most talked about most – and what isn’t American – is how Canadian immigration levels that had been stable for a generation are being steadily increased. By 2025, this country will be welcoming half a million new Canadians a year, and rising, double the number of a decade earlier.

But the Liberals have brought about a much bigger and little-noticed revolution in the shadow immigration system’s various temporary foreign worker streams – whose accent is on admitting people for low-skill, low-wage, low productivity jobs. Just like the shadow immigration system in the U.S.

Canada’s streams of temporary admissions are now larger than traditional immigration, and growing fast.

I’ve recently written about how hard it is for doctors – even Canadian graduates of overseas medical school – to get permission to work in Canada. The supply of these highly-educated professionals is greatly restricted.

At the same time, however, the Liberal government has gone to extraordinary lengths to give employers a nearly unlimited supply of low-wage workers, with many of those now arriving via the education visa stream. Those visas used to be entirely about education, but many schools now appear to be partly or even mostly peddling something else, namely the opportunity to reside and work in Canada, usually in a low-wage job.

More on this, and how to fix it, next week.

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