Canada is ready to open its doors to expanded immigration, but only if the immigrants already here do better.
The government is under huge pressure to increase immigration levels, according to Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney. It's facing demands for more newcomers from business leaders and nearly every provincial premier. But before Mr. Kenney will comply, he says he wants to see more immigrants working and earning at rates close to those of Canadian-born people. That also happens to be the focus of a series of reforms he launched this spring, designed to improve economic outcomes for immigrants.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Mr. Kenney said he's open to raising immigration levels as soon as he sees a turnaround in those outcomes. That is a major shift. For 20 years, Canada's immigration levels have been stuck at around 250,000 new permanent residents a year.
The Globe has called for Canada to double its level of economic migration, pushing its total immigration to 400,000 new permanent residents a year. Such a move would make the country's population younger, more innovative and better placed to address future labour needs, many experts say.
Mr. Kenney said he first needs to see a narrowing of the difference in earnings between immigrants and the Canadian-born. He also wants to see an unemployment rate close to that of the Canadian-born (it's currently about 2.5 per cent higher for all immigrants, and 6 per cent higher for recent immigrants) and evidence that immigrants are filling job shortages. All of those are central to his proposed new selection process, which places more emphasis on language ability, youth and skilled trades.
In expressing his reservations about raising immigration levels immediately, Mr. Kenney said recent immigrants have had higher rates of unemployment and lower incomes than the Canadian-born, a trend that has gradually worsened over the last three decades. He's not willing to bring more people in to sink or swim, he said, when too many have been sinking.
For 20 years it seems Canada has been stuck around 250,000 immigrants. Do immigration levels need to rise?
While we believe that immigration is an important tool in addressing large and growing labour shortages, we also recognize that it's not a silver bullet. I'm very conscious of our obligation to maintain the very broad public consensus in favour of immigration in Canada to avoid the kind of anti-immigration backlash we've seen in Western Europe. That kind of backlash happens when business and political elites become disconnected from popular opinion. When we look at all of the public opinion on the issue, we see that only 10 to 15 per cent of Canadians are in favour of raising immigration levels.
The Prime Minister said in his Davos speech that immigration is an important part of Canada's economic strategy, yet at a time when the baby boomers are retiring, Canada isn't increasing immigration levels. Why?
We're adding almost 0.8 per cent to our population per year through immigration, which is the highest per-capita level of immigration in the world. We did that even during a global economic downturn. This government has done something unprecedented and counterintuitive precisely because the Prime Minister understands that labour shortages will be our greatest economic challenge in the future.
What signal do you need to see, specifically, that will tell you it's time to consider increasing immigration levels?
If the unemployment rate among newcomers is in the same range as that of the general population, if we see that incomes amongst newcomers are going up rather than down, and if we see that there's tangible evidence that immigrants are filling many of the labour shortages in the economy, those are the three factors I'm most keen on.
Do you foresee the number of temporary foreign workers going up or down?
Given the acuteness of the labour shortage, it will probably stay relatively high. I wouldn't be surprised to see some increases.
How do you think Canada's source countries are going to change as a result of the language requirements you plan to introduce?
I've been talking about flexibility, a more intelligent system with respect to language proficiency. If you have limited levels of English and French you'll be able to get in, in principle, if your employer is offering you a job and you have a skill level that will get certification in Canada. But if you want to come and work as a doctor or lawyer or engineer, you basically need to be fluent. How's that going to affect source countries? I honestly don't know. I don't sit around projecting that.
Are there any provinces that are not asking for more immigrants?
No. We've got a funny situation where I have huge pressure from provinces. The eight provinces that benefit from the Provincial Nominee program are constantly asking for much larger quotas. Business in general is asking for huge increases to immigration levels. But Canadians, about 85 per cent, say they don't want to increase immigration levels and we have 13-per-cent unemployment amongst immigrants. We are trying to manage these countervailing pressures.
So for you this is about public opinion?
No, it's about more than that. It's about outcomes. It's about ensuring we respect Canadians' sense about our capacity to integrate newcomers. Immigrants have double-digit unemployment and have seen incomes on the decline for three decades. Once our reforms are implemented we will, I am sure, see higher levels of employment and income for immigrants, which means faster and more successful integration. I think a very strong case can be made then for higher levels. But until we get to that I think it would be irresponsible.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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