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Charan Gill, who is executive director of Progressive Intercultural Community Services Society, seen here at his office in Surrey, B.C., in 2006. (Rafal Gerszak for the Globe and Mail/Rafal Gerszak for the Globe and Mail)
Charan Gill, who is executive director of Progressive Intercultural Community Services Society, seen here at his office in Surrey, B.C., in 2006. (Rafal Gerszak for the Globe and Mail/Rafal Gerszak for the Globe and Mail)

The newcomers numbers game: Jason Kenney's balancing act Add to ...

The mastermind of the Conservative strategy to woo new Canadians during the last federal election launched the West Coast leg of a tour to re-examine Canada's immigration system - one that is likely to recalibrate the way newcomers are admitted into the country.

Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney was in Vancouver on Tuesday asking agencies that work with immigrants, as well as academics and community leaders, to weigh how Canada should adjust its immigrant intake, both in total numbers and in the mix of immigrants selected.

For the past decade, Canada has accepted roughly 250,000 new permanent residents annually, but that number jumped in 2010 to more than 280,000, the highest total in more than 50 years. As Canada's population ages, some advocates have suggested Canada should ramp up its immigrant intake to more than 300,000 a year. But the issue is hotly contested by those who argue that recent immigrants have fared badly in the labour force.

Mr. Kenney, the politician credited with delivering the immigrant-populated seats that sealed a Conservative majority, kicked off the consultations in Alberta last week and will be in Toronto Wednesday and Montreal on Friday. He faces a delicate balancing act. Public support for immigration remains high, but polling shows a very limited appetite for increasing immigration levels. And, as Mr. Kenney pointed out Tuesday, studies suggest Canada would need to triple or quadruple its immigration levels to maintain its current ratio of workers to old-age dependents.

"Simply put, we do not have the resources or ability to integrate a million new immigrants every year," Mr. Kenney said. "We can't teach them English or French. We can't flood our taxpayer-funded services like health care and public education. We can't put such high pressure on housing and real-estate markets."

Debbie Douglas, executive director of the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants, is one of those calling for Canada's immigrant intake to climb above 300,000 a year.

"Last year was telling. We were able to land 280,000 immigrants. We have the capacity," Ms. Douglas said. "For me it's about political will, and we're at a time when economically we need more immigrants."

Ms. Douglas said Canada must place more emphasis on permanent migration. She's opposed to the policy of accepting increasing numbers of temporary foreign workers in Canada, who have a difficult path to citizenship and must leave the country after four years. There are more than 300,000 temporary foreign workers in Canada at present.

She also wants to see steps taken to reduce the backlog of family reunification applications from parents and grandparents. Mr. Kenney was criticized during the recent election campaign for waiting times that had grown to several years.

He is unlikely to drastically revise overall immigration intake, but he expects to face hard choices when it comes to adjusting the immigration mix.

Approximately 26 per cent of immigrants who come to Canada each year do so under the family class. Mr. Kenney said the emphasis must be placed on those applicants with work experience and skills who can immediately contribute to the economy. At the moment, only three in 10 new arrivals have been selected for their economic potential, he said. If that number is to rise, there may have to be cuts in other areas, such as the family class. Those decisions remain open for discussion.

Charan Gill, from Progressive Intercultural Community Services, a B.C. organization that supports South Asian immigrant communities, argues that non-working grandparents can contribute to the economy in ways that are not always apparent.

"Grandparents look after grandchildren so the two parents can work and pay their bills, that's very crucial," he said.

Provinces are expected to push for increases to the provincial nominee programs that have allowed them more control over their own immigrant selection. Jennifer Howard, Manitoba's minister of Labour and Immigration, said she is asking Mr. Kenney to lift the cap of 5,000 principal nominees per year..

"Immigration has become an economic engine for us," Ms. Howard said.

Patrick Grady, an economic consultant with Global Economics Ltd., takes a different view. He says the current levels are "way too high." He has argued for a reduction in immigration to 100,000 a year, something he says the government would never consider. He says immigrant cohorts over the last two decades have fared badly in the labour force, particularly since the government, in the early 1990s, abandoned the policy of tap-on, tap-off immigration that cut flows in economic hard times.

Ratna Omidvar, president of the Maytree Foundation, said immigration can, in the short-term calculation, seem costly. But it's the long term that matters.

"We need to have a long-term view of how we're building this nation and what role immigration plays," Ms. Omidvar said.

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