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Our Time to Lead

Why Canada needs a flood of immigrants Add to ...

Even that relatively modest target, however, has never been hit hasn't been hit since 1967: In 1992, the 250,000 figure was more than 30,000 short of 1 per cent. The gap has only widened since. To reach 1 per cent today, Canada would have to admit about 347,000 people.

Indeed, organizations as wide-ranging as the Royal Bank, the Ontario Coalition of Agencies Serving Immigrants, the Conference Board of Canada (an economic research group) and the Canada West Foundation (an Alberta think tank) all have been calling for immigration to grow to 340,000 or beyond.

“Immigration certainly can be sustained at significantly higher levels,” says Robert Vineberg, a former director-general of citizenship and immigration for the prairie region and a fellow at the Canada West Foundation. “These numbers may seem large, but at 1 per cent of the population it's not all that much, particularly when we have an aging work force.”

Some analysts paint a stark picture: In the next 15 years, Canada could become a “Northern Tiger,” if it commits to a major boost in immigration levels, a more effective selection system, tax incentives for immigrants to settle outside the big cities and a plan to retain them, said an April report from international consultants Deloitte and the Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA). The alternative scenarios are a “Lost Decade,” in which Canada falls further behind, or at best an “unsustainable prosperity,” in which a complacent Canada continues as it's been doing, and emerges unprepared for the next phase of its development.

“We certainly need more immigration than the status quo,” says Bill Greenhalgh, chief executive officer of the HRPA. “We need to get the right people, prescreen their qualifications and change our philosophy to truly welcome and integrate them.”

Mr. Kenney, the Immigration Minister, points to polls showing Canadians do not want higher intake levels, and says he does not want to endanger our enviable social consensus on the issue. That could be the case if increased immigration were perceived to have raised unemployment or poverty. But he has not totally closed off the option.

“We can get to reviewing the question of levels once we've fixed the programs,” Mr. Kenney told the press in March. “Once we've moved to this fast, flexible and pro-active system, once we've seen higher levels of income, once we're doing a better job of matching the newcomers with the job shortages, then I think it would be sensible to look potentially at higher levels.”

Immigration is a huge adjustment, and the first five or 10 years after arrival are often difficult. That effect has increased as Canada has drawn from a wider pool of nations, with more cultural and accreditation differences.

Recent immigrants earn only about 60 per cent as much as the Canadian-born, whereas in the late 1970s it was nearly 90 per cent, according to research by McMaster economist Arthur Sweetman and former StatsCan director Garnett Picot.

After 10 years in Canada, however, immigrants' employment rates and earnings start to approach those of the Canadian-born. Among those in their prime working years, immigrants are nearly 60 per cent more likely to have a university degree than those born here (37 per cent compared with 22).

And their children have become perhaps this country's greatest asset: One of the best indicators of whether a Canadian child will go to university, says economist Ross Finnie, is not the parents' levels of education but their countries of birth, since the children of almost every immigrant group outperform kids with parents born in Canada.

Taking the long view

It is short-sighted, then, to evaluate immigrants' success solely on their income or their ability to get a job quickly in their field – or indeed, on any purely economic terms. A nation's horizons extend for generations. In their daily struggle and sacrifice, every first generation of immigrants is laying a foundation for the future.

“We miss the human side if we boil [immigration]down to this economic calculation,” U of T's Prof. Studin says. “That reduces a complex story to something very mechanical.”

At the same time, the ideal way to minimize any turbulence is to follow Mr. Kenney's lead and emphasize economic-class immigrants, with their higher skill levels, lower unemployment and greater earning power.

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