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Ontario's immigration debate isn't getting the respect it deserves Add to ...

The early days of the Ontario election saw a polarized discussion about a single and relatively minor policy proposal related to immigration, as opposed to the broad, thoughtful debate we need, given the significance of immigration to province’s economic future.

Canadians are retiring earlier and our birth rate is dropping. By 2015, 100 per cent of Canada’s labour growth will come from new immigrants. They will fuel consumer market growth as well. We cannot sustain or expand Ontario’s economy without attracting and properly settling talented people from other countries.

Ontario has long been a magnet for immigrants. Most of us naively assume this will continue automatically, but there are warning signs that Ontario’s political leaders and others must respond to.

Competition for talent is increasing. While Canada and Australia are currently destinations of choice, Western European countries are working hard to figure out how to better compete. As countries such as China and India develop economically and see their own birth rates decline, they too will soon compete for immigrants to meet their growing labour needs.

Ontario also faces stiff domestic competition for immigrants; the number of newcomers picking Ontario over other provinces has declined dramatically since 2001. Those other provinces have intensified their sales pitches. Some have made preferential agreements with the federal government that divert their way more of the immigrants likely to create new jobs and businesses. Meanwhile, Ontario’s immigration agreement with the federal government has expired. Our provincial leaders must ensure that any new agreement gets Ontario its fair share of economy-boosting newcomers.

Those same political leaders must ensure that Ontario preserves its spot as a top destination, that newcomers settle well, and that we make full use of their talents and potential. Maintaining this advantage will require attractive job prospects, efficient transportation options, and decent affordable housing, the same things desired by people already here.

Newcomers consistently face both higher unemployment and a greater incidence of underemployment than the Canadian-born, and they are taking longer to integrate than immigrants who arrived more than 10 years ago. In March, 2011, Greater Toronto Area unemployment rates ranged from 5.4 per cent for Canadian-born to 9.6 per cent for immigrants, to 14.2 per cent for immigrants who arrived in the past five years. These numbers would certainly suggest the necessity of some unique measures to help people facing unique challenges so they can contribute to their full potential as quickly as possible.

Immigrants also earn less. From 2001 to 2006, the average university-educated Canadian-born worker earned $61,904, more than three times as much as their newcomer peers ($20,143). The more we can do to help newcomers get into roles that match their abilities and income potential – be it through credential recognition, language training, facilitating jobs and self-employment, or other means – the better the results will be for our economy.

Improving transportation infrastructure – roads, public transit and active transportation – is top of mind for most commute-weary voters, particularly in the Toronto region. Especially hard hit by the lack of investment in efficient public transit are those who depend on it most: newcomers, older people and low-income earners. The situation will only worsen as we add two million more people and one million more cars to the Toronto-Hamilton region alone by 2031. Unless Ontario forges ahead with implementing the Metrolinx regional transportation plan and convinces the federal government to help pay for it, the economic, social and environmental costs of regional congestion will soar to $15-billion by 2031.

Finding housing in a world of escalating rents and diminishing supply is another issue that troubles many Ontarians. In the Toronto region, almost one in five households (322,415) struggle to find and keep an affordable home; the wait for social housing is up to 21 years. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ excellent report on immigrant settlement noted that affordable rental housing is of particular concern to newcomers, almost two-thirds of whom are renters, and who spend more of their income on rent than Canadian-born renters. Ontario’s leaders must keep working with the federal and municipal governments to develop and fund programs to expand affordable housing and tackle homelessness.

Make no mistake, the global and national war for top talent is heating up and we ignore it at our peril. Ontario’s highly educated and diverse population is a significant competitive advantage but one that we will have to work hard to maintain. We will continue to be a magnet for the highly qualified newcomers we need if we have strong leadership on jobs, transportation and housing.

Quality immigration has been a huge blessing for Ontario and a huge contributor to our prosperity. We must continue to treat it that way and not allow it to become one more divisive political football. We have too many of those already.

Julia Deans is the CEO and John Tory the volunteer chair of the Greater Toronto CivicAction Alliance.

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