John Ibbitson is completing a one-year leave of absence from The Globe and Mail, during which he served as a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation while working on a book. He returns to the Globe in January.
It has been more than four years since the MV Sun Sea arrived in Esquimalt, bearing 492 Tamil passengers claiming to be refugees. Many people feared that more ships would come to our shores, bearing thousands of claimants. But that didn't happen, because of root-and-branch reforms to Canada's immigration system brought in by the Harper government.
Those reforms – some of which are already in place, with the rest slated to take effect January 1, 2015 – are changing the nature of immigration to this country.
Entrepreneurial, well educated, with skills that fit the job market and a good command of English or French, immigrants today are better equipped than ever to integrate successfully into our economy and society. Such immigrants are likely to believe that people can and should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, just as they did.
You could call them "bootstrap immigrants." They are contributing mightily to Canada's transformation from an Atlantic nation to a Pacific nation. And they are making this country a more conservative place.
I examined the changes to immigration and refugee policy in a policy brief released this week by the Centre for International Governance and Innovation, which you can find here.
The paper examines how the Conservatives have made immigration and refugee policy less compassionate and more economically focused than it was under previous Liberal governments.
For example, refugee claimants from 42 countries designated as safe now have their claims rejected essentially out-of-hand. The reasoning is that someone from, say, the United States could not possibly be at risk of persecution because the United States does not persecute its citizens.
Claimants from less safe countries have their cases dealt with in months rather than years. As a result, the number of people arriving at our borders unannounced and claiming refugee status has shrunk dramatically – by 80 per cent, from designated safe countries.
The Conservatives still admit as many refugees as previous governments – about 12,000 a year – but these are either privately sponsored or brought in under the Office of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. In either case, refugees to Canada are now far more carefully screened than in the past to ensure that they can integrate successfully.
Family-class immigration has virtually vanished under the Tories. Instead, parents and grandparents can visit for up to 10 years using a new super visa, provided their families are able and willing to pay for health care and other costs.
As for the great bulk of economic-class immigrants who come to our shores, starting in the new year their application will be graded under the rules of the new Express Entry program. Those with the highest score will be invited to enter Canada, with the government promising to process their application within six months. The rest will have their application rejected after one year, though they can then reapply. No more joining the immigration queue under the old points system and waiting until you're at the front of the line. You're either in or you're out, and you'll know within months.
Whether you support or oppose these reforms will depend on how you view immigration policy. The Conservatives can hardly be called anti-immigrant: the quota for next year has been raised from 250,000 to 280,000. The world's most generous immigration program will become more generous still.
Anyone who worries about immigrants falling behind because they lack the language skills or job skills needed to succeed will surely support reforms that aim to better match new arrivals to labour market needs.
But these reforms are tough-minded. Rules that cut health care funding from failed refugee claimants have been widely condemned and struck down by the courts, though the case is under appeal.
Full citizenship takes longer to get and can be revoked. And new citizens have little hope of ever being able to reunite their families by having relatives brought over permanently.
We have come a long way from the immigration philosophy that brought most of our ancestors here – an open door policy that encouraged those fleeing war, persecution or poverty to make a new start in a new land.
Those days are long gone. The new Canadian immigrant, the bootstrap immigrant, accepts that admission to Canada is a privilege not a right, one that he or she earned by dint of hard work and smart choices.
They're not likely to support welfare for new arrivals – or for anyone else for that matter – because they don't need any. They might vote Liberal or NDP, but not because the Conservatives are anti-immigrant. The Conservatives, after all, brought them here – more than two million have arrived on Stephen Harper's watch – and the party's philosophy is congenial to their own beliefs.
Which means that whichever party replaces the Conservatives in government will likely leave their immigration reforms in place. We are all conservatives now.