Canada will open its doors to a steadily increasing number of immigrants in the next three years in hopes of attracting 1 per cent of its population by 2020, an attempt to buoy the economy as the country faces a growing population of retirees.
The government says the plan will position Canada as a country that welcomes the world, particularly at a time when U.S. President Donald Trump is seeking to toughen immigration rules in America.
The plan is to bring in 310,000 new permanent residents in 2018, 330,000 in 2019 and 340,000 in 2020 – an increase from the Liberal government's trend the past two years of 300,000 immigrants.
According to Statistics Canada projections, the proportion of working-age members of the population will continue to decline until 2036, by which point the number of seniors in the country will likely be more than double the figure in 2009.
"If we are going to be able to keep our commitments for health care and pensions and all our social programs and to continue to grow our economy and meet our labour market needs in the decades to come, we must respond to this clear demographic challenge," said Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen when revealing his government's plan.
Of the nearly one million immigrants, 58 per cent will be economic class, 27 per cent will be family class and 14 per cent will be refugees.
As the U.S. tightens its borders, Mr. Hussen said Canada's plan will be what defines it internationally.
"There are more and more countries that are closing their doors to people. They're closing their doors to talent, to skills, and yes, to those who are seeking protection from persecution. We are emphatically and unapologetically taking the opposite approach," he said.
Statistics Canada has projected that by 2036, immigrants could make up 30 per cent of the total population of the country.
In a report released a month before Mr. Hussen delivered the government's plan, the Conference Board of Canada estimated that by 2033, all of the country's population growth would come from immigration.
While Mr. Hussen heralded the figures as "historic highs," immigration levels in fact reached their peak in 1913, when the country admitted 400,000 new residents. The government's own economic advisory council recommended a sharper increase, to 450,000 immigrants a year for the next five years. The Canadian Immigrant Settlement Sector Alliance released its own three-year plan this summer with figures that were also more ambitious than what the government revealed: a target of 350,000 for 2018, 400,000 for 2019 and 450,000 for 2020.
Still, the Conference Board of Canada lauded the government for introducing multiyear targets – traditionally, Ottawa's immigration plan only looks ahead one year.
"Canada's decision to increase immigration will help sustain long-term economic growth in light of its rapidly aging population and low birth rate," said Craig Alexander, chief economist with the Conference Board of Canada. "Introducing a multiyear levels plan will improve the ability of governments, employers, immigrant-serving organizations, and other important stakeholders to successfully integrate newcomers into Canada's economy and society."
The government's 2018 immigrant plan includes targets across the economic and family categories that are higher than they were in previous years, but refugee targets have decreased. The government had allowed more newcomers in this category than usual in the last two years due to the Syrian refugee crisis – in just the first five months of 2016, 25 per cent of the immigrants Canada received were refugees (typically they make up 10 per cent of the total immigrant population). Now, the government is returning to more traditional proportional figures for this category.
The Immigration and Refugee Board has logged major backlogs in processing claims this year, and Mr. Hussen said the increased number of immigrants will help clear those backlogs.
"This will help us reunite families faster. It will help employers to be able to get the talent that they need here faster. And yes, it will also help us to provide more protection to the most vulnerable people in the world," he said.
Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel questioned how the government will maintain its economic immigration targets (it hopes to attract 195,800 in 2020) when it has struggled to match immigrants with the sectors where there are labour gaps, and increase the number of newcomers in less-populated parts of Canada.
"It's about people, not numbers," she said in a statement.
Mr. Hussen agreed that it is difficult to permanently sustain populations in the parts of Canada that need them – particularly Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. Many have found a new home in those provinces through the provincial nominee program, in which immigrants are assigned to regions of Canada where they might not typically settle. But after a few years, many end up moving to other parts of the country – such as Ontario or Alberta – where they see greater job opportunities.
"The problem in Atlantic Canada isn't attracting skilled immigrants, it's keeping them," Mr. Hussen said.
He pointed to a pilot program the government is running in the Atlantic provinces, in which it waives the labour impact assessment an employer would typically need to prepare to hire an immigrant. In exchange, the employer agrees to be heavily involved in the settlement process for the new immigrant employee. The idea is this would make it harder for the immigrant to move elsewhere after settling in Atlantic Canada, Mr. Hussen said.
In its 2018-to-2020 plan, the government has put an emphasis on highly skilled immigrants, who will make up more than 40 per cent of all economic class immigrants in the next three years.
Jenny Kwan, the NDP's immigration critic, said in a statement the plan should target immigrants of all skill levels.
"The current approach of only targeting the high skilled suggests that this government will continue to rely on temporary foreign workers instead of building our nation. It's wrong that there are more TFWs than immigrants since 2006. It is time for Canada to act on the principle that if you are good enough to work, you are good enough to stay."