Skip to main content

Stephen Harper takes part in a cricket lesson at the Bishop Cotton Boys and Girls School in Bangalore, India on Friday.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Stephen Harper believes a global demographic shift is under way, one that will force developed nations such as Canada into a furious competition for talented immigrants in the years ahead.

In some of his most expansive comments on the topic, the Prime Minister outlined the rationale behind his government's fundamental overhaul of the country's system for choosing immigrants – changes that some critics view as short-sighted and based purely on economic aims.

"We are making profound, and to this point, not fully appreciated changes to our immigration system," Mr. Harper said in an interview with The Globe and Mail as he was preparing for a brief visit to the Philippines, Canada's top source for immigrants in recent years.

Mr. Harper says Canada must increase its efforts to recruit skilled immigrants because industrialized countries are turning to foreigners to make up for a shortfall in population growth and the fiscal pressures of supporting aging societies.

"The world is going to shift," he said.

For decades, Canada has been among a small group of countries that accept immigrants. "There aren't many. There is Canada, the United States, Australia, Israel and historically there are only about a half dozen," Mr. Harper said.

"But we're seeing as the demographic changes I've talked about, the aging population, start to bite, in many developed countries, we're seeing their immigration needs and their actual immigration intakes beginning to increase."

Nations are becoming increasingly aggressive in targeting and selecting newcomers. And Canada must step up its game or risk losing the cream of the immigration crop, he said.

"Immigrants are going to be going to a whole lot of countries, mostly in the developed world, and Canada is going to have to get out there, compete, and make sure we get the immigrants both in terms of volumes and particular attributes: skills, expertise and investment capacity."

While Mr. Harper didn't address it directly, the Conservative approach to immigration has also paid big dividends on the campaign trail. Middle-class immigrant voters who dominate the suburban ridings surrounding Toronto and, to a lesser extent, Vancouver were key to the Conservative victory in the last election.

In that sense, Conservatives in Canada have put together the very coalition that eluded Republicans in the United States and led to Barack Obama's re-election on Tuesday.

While Mr. Harper would not address whether he was surprised by the Republican loss, he did say that attracting small-c conservatives "from every conceivable region and walk of life and background" is critical for his party.

The effort now, said Mr. Harper, is to shift the immigration system away from a "passive" operation that merely accepted people on a first-come, first-serve basis to one where newcomers are chosen according to how they can benefit Canada.

The old system "essentially operated on receiving applications and processing them in order," the Prime Minister explained.

"When we took office, that had left us with, in every single stream [of applicants], backlogs of hundreds and hundreds of thousands of applications that we had been obliged by previous policy to literally process in order – without any regard to what the country's actual immigration priorities were."

A four-year-old immigration program that best embodies the Harper government's approach is the Canadian Experience Class, an initiative that places a premium on attracting people who have already proven they can integrate into Canadian society and meet its labour-market needs. The top three countries of origin are China, India and the Philippines and the program is the fastest-growing category of newcomers to Canada.

"What we are trying to do in key categories, especially economic categories, is shift to an activist policy where we define what the immigration needs are that we want, where we actually go out and try and recruit immigrants and to the extent that we receive applications we try and prioritize them to the country's objectives," Mr. Harper said.

The Canadian Experience Class fast-tracks permanent residency applications for skilled foreign workers and graduate students who have spent time in Canada on temporary permits or student visas – ones that can demonstrate they are proficient in either English or French.

Before it was created, highly skilled outsiders could not become permanent residents from within Canada. Under the new program, applicants can apply from within Canada and expect a quicker decision – normally within one year.

Mr. Harper's comments come as Ottawa announced it will review the Temporary Foreign Worker program, which brings thousands of foreign workers to Canada each year. Some argue the system lets foreigners take jobs from Canadians and creates a second class of labourers – putting a downward pressure on wages.

The new approach doesn't necessarily mean more overall immigrants.

Ottawa has held immigration levels steady for seven years. Canada plans to admit between 240,000 to 265,000 new permanent residents in 2013 – the same annual target range it has set for immigration since 2007.

About 100,000 students and 200,000 temporary workers from foreign countries flood into Canada annually – a group the Conservatives feel offers the best prospects to enlist as new immigrants.

"This government is very pro-immigration," Mr. Harper said. "This government believes Canada needs immigration, benefits from immigration and that those needs and benefits will become even greater in the future if this is done correctly."