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Our Time to Lead

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

At the moment, Canada accepts 150,000 economic immigrants a year. If that figure doubled to 300,000, and the other categories – refugees and family-reunification cases – stayed constant, total immigration would be in the range of 400,000 people, or a little more than 1 per cent.

That would mean economic migrants would make up about 75 per cent of Canada's annual immigration, up from 60 per cent today. It's not as big a jump as it may seem: Over the past decade, Canada has allowed its temporary-foreign-worker program to balloon, bringing in 180,000 more temporary workers, such as the cladders in Edmonton, every year. Replacing that number with more permanent immigration would be a more stable solution, giving those workers a common stake in the future with their Canadian neighbours.

Doubling economic immigration would send a signal to every talented prospective migrant around the world. Right now, the economic turmoil that is gripping Europe has raised the issue for thousands of well-educated, skilled, multilingual workers. In Spain, unemployment has hit nearly 25 per cent, and youth unemployment has surpassed 50 per cent. Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia have recently been recruiting in Ireland.

By contrast, as China and India, two of the largest source countries, become more prosperous, their pools of applicants may shrink. They may even join the U.S., Australia and South America in competing with Canada for talent. Canada needs to distinguish itself.

As the increase rolled out, Canada would have to monitor the outcomes and ensure that the policy was achieving its goals. Then, over the long term, immigration would have to rise even higher to sustain growth, since according to current projections, by 2031, more Canadians will die every year than are born. By that time, immigration could grow to 500,000 annually – fully double the total today.

And Prof. Studin's 100-million-strong nation would become more than an abstract dream.

4. The immigrant idea factory

Immigration also can be a boon in less predictable ways. By bringing together ideas and experiences, it can fertilize imagination and invention. In his new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, American writer Jonah Lehrer, who specializes in tracing the implications of neuroscience, suggests that “ages of excess genius are always accompanied by new forms of human mixing.”

According to the U.S. patent office, Mr. Lehrer says, “immigrants invent patents at double the rate of non-immigrants, which is why a 1-per-cent increase in immigrants with college degrees leads to a 15-per-cent rise in patent production.”

In that spirit, in the industrial heart of Kitchener, Ont., a 19th-century brick tannery offers a window on Canada's post-industrial future.

The Communitech Hub is a space where the academic world of the University of Waterloo incubator programs meets the real world of entrepreneurs and investors. On average, there is one new business born here every day. And the bright minds who sit hunched over laptops in sneakers, jeans and Buddy Holly glasses are a multi-ethnic mix, including many immigrants and children of immigrants. The white board next to the empty takeout boxes spells out their ambition in huge block letters: “We are not leaving until this is done.”

Vigen Nazarian, 51, a Canadian born in Iran, is at Communitech meeting with an app developer. Mr. Nazarian is on his fourth tech start-up, a company called Antvibes, which tackles one little challenge of a diverse society by providing audio of the correct pronunciation of a name from a business card or e-mail signature.

In his opinion, people of different backgrounds take different approaches to problem solving, and with unusually successful outcomes: In the U.S., a quarter of energy and technology start-ups launched in the period from 1995 to 2005 had at least one immigrant as a key founder, and nearly half of the top 50 venture-funded companies were founded or co-founded by immigrants.

“Today, you're building a global product,” Mr. Nazarian says. “Gone are the days of a product with only local reach. I would love to have product-development ideas coming from immigrants who have a different perspective.”

Upstairs from the Hub is a Google branch office, an ever-present reminder of how quickly a company with a bright idea can grow. And across the hall is John Baker, CEO and founder of Desire2Learn, one of the darlings of the Canadian tech sector, which produces software for teaching, assessing and analyzing student learning.

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