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Condos and office towers are seen in the downtown core of Vancouver, B.C., on Aug. 14, 2016.

Darryl Dyck/The Globe and Mail

Chinese business-class immigrants aren't coming to Canada to have better careers or earn more money. In fact, they expect to do worse economically.

Instead, their primary motivation is to find better homes for their families, even if that means making less money or not working at all, says a new study by a University of British Columbia professor and a graduate student.

That means many Canadian immigration policy makers are out of step with what some of the country's new immigrants are experiencing, UBC sociology professor Nathanael Lauster said.

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"They need to adjust their thinking about who is coming here and why," he said.

The study, carried out with PhD student Jing Zhao, has been accepted for publication in Social Work, a journal produced by Oxford University Press. In it, the two summarize interviews with 31 people who had emigrated or were about to emigrate from Beijing to Vancouver – a city currently embroiled in a heated debate over the impact of mainland Chinese immigrants on real estate prices and local quality of life.

All but a few newcomers said their move to Canada was not primarily about improved economic opportunities, the study indicated, contrary to what immigration researchers have always presumed is the main motivation for changing countries.

"In narratives of migration experience from Beijing to Vancouver, we note that the trajectory of settlement very nearly reverses that assumed by scholars," the study says. "Migrants tend to settle in and settle down with their families first, enjoying leisure time and making a home. Then they gradually begin to look for market work. Often times they take jobs as part of settling in and stabilizing their lives into a new routine, rather than the other way around."

The two note that some of their study subjects only found jobs as a way of trying to integrate into the community.

"Cheng," a woman who was described as having access to family money, as well as several apartments in Beijing, "ended up taking a job in Vancouver cleaning a supermarket just to kill the time and meet people. In this sense, having a job provided an important source of structure for Cheng's everyday life. Zhen, another business-class immigrant, described taking a sales job in a local mall for much the same reason."

Instead of work, what was key to many of the immigrants interviewed was how living in Canada allowed them the opportunity to have a real family life. They described their lives in China as often frantic, Prof. Lauster and Ms. Zhao found.

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"Together with his wife, Tong, a recent immigrant, made enough money in Beijing to hire a nanny to look after their daughter while they worked. Tong often worked overtime in Beijing, took business trips, and spent evenings out, wining and dining colleagues. When he was home, he mostly spent his time recuperating on the couch, while the nanny, his parents and his wife's parents took turns looking after Tong's daughter."

In Canada, the routine changed.

"Tong explained that his life since arriving in Vancouver was dramatically different. He had enough money to buy a house in an expensive neighbourhood. On a normal day, he described waking up to cook breakfast and prepare lunch boxes for his daughter and wife. He took his daughter to school (his wife attended a college program), then he took an English class, watched TV, napped, and worked on his garden," the study says. "Tong planned to get some paid work eventually, as his English improved, but he seemed in no hurry." Not everyone in the study remained content with having mediocre employment but better family lives. One man moved back to Beijing and another woman, a former engineer living in Canada with her two children, was contemplating it, saying her life in Vancouver felt dull.

But most of them continued to value better schooling, better food and the opportunity to have a second child as part of their new life in Canada.

Canada ended its investor-immigrant program in 2014, in part because studies showed that the new arrivals were not creating new businesses or generating a lot of economic activity, as anticipated.

The study – in which 26 of the 31 people interviewed were not investor immigrants but had been accepted into Canada as skilled workers – indicates that members of the group were not putting their abilities to use in Canada, as anticipated. Prof. Lauster said part of the reason could be that their credentials weren't recognized here.

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Canada might want to rethink its policy of granting safe haven to the relatively well-off, such as skilled workers, he said. "When you select for skilled, you're also selecting for wealth. So Canada could look at letting in fewer millionaires and more refugees."

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