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Politics Syrian refugee arrivals could affect intake of other immigrants: Ottawa

Minister of Immigration John McCallum, left, greets Khloud, centre, and her family at Pearson Airport in Toronto, Feb. 29, 2016.

Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The federal government will increase the total number of immigrants it welcomes this year, but the arrival of tens of thousands of Syrian refugees could still lead to cutbacks for other immigration streams, according to Immigration Minister John McCallum.

Mr. McCallum's comments come as the government prepares to table its 2016 immigration targets by March 9, outlining the anticipated number of new permanent residents Canada will welcome this year.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail last week, the minister said the government will be "expanding the pie" to accommodate its ambitious Syrian refugee resettlement plan, which recently saw the arrival of the 25,000th Syrian since December. However, he said that "there are limits to how much we can expand the pie, so there will always be trade-offs."

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"We will be aiming for a relatively high level of total immigration, so to a degree, the additional refugees will be accommodated by a higher total, but … to some extent, it's a zero-sum game. If you let in more of one, you let in less of another," he said.

Mr. McCallum refused to provide specific targets or say what those trade-offs could look like before the immigration levels plan is tabled in Parliament.

Queen's University immigration and refugee law professor Sharryn Aiken said she is concerned about Mr. McCallum's comments.

"The Liberals campaigned on a commitment to immigration and a clear recognition of the overall benefits of immigration to Canada," Prof. Aiken said. "I wouldn't want to see what actually constitutes a very modest increase in the refugee program result in downward pressure on other categories."

Given the government's commitments to Syrian refugees and family reunification, experts are worried the economic immigrant streams could see cutbacks as a result of the Syrian refugee influx.

Sarah Anson-Cartwright, director of skills and immigration policy at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, said the minister has warned her organization of an upcoming "shift" in immigration targets. She said the group is hoping the Syrian refugee resettlement plan won't affect the number of economic immigrants Canada plans to accept this year.

"It's not difficult to see that either the overall pie would have to grow or you're eating into some other portion," Ms. Anson-Cartwright said. "We're hopeful that it's not going to be any kind of a major shift. It will be marginal in nature and not take away from the really important chunk of the pie that helps to contribute to our economy and helps for good outcomes for the immigrants as well."

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Robert Vineberg, senior fellow at the Canada West Foundation and a former director-general at Citizenship and Immigration Canada, said a specific economic stream – the provincial nominee program – has historically suffered as a result of immigration target trade-offs. The program is considered an economic generator for provinces and territories, which recruit and nominate skilled workers based on regional labour market needs.

"It seems that, as always, it's the provinces that get caught up in this, and caps are applied to the provincial nominee totals in order to maintain levels at an overall total that it seems the government has predetermined and then tries to fit everything into the pie. And that's where you get the trade-offs," Mr. Vineberg said.

In its 2015 immigration levels plan, the previous Conservative government planned to welcome up to 285,000 immigrants, of which as many as 186,700 spots were reserved for economic immigrants and 30,200 for humanitarian streams. In the first two months of 2016 alone, Canada has already resettled 19,000 Syrian refugees, with hopes of settling a total of 35,000 to 50,000 by the end of the year. The exact total of Syrian refugees will be included in the government's immigration targets.

Mr. McCallum's commitment to increase the total number of immigrants in order to account for Syrian refugees this year could make the Trudeau government the first to admit more than 300,000 new immigrants in one year since 1913. Across the board, experts welcomed an increase to the annual total.

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