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The federal government is aiming to welcome between 410,000 and 505,000 new permanent residents this year.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

There’s a long list of reasons for Canada to open its arms to newcomers from around the world – but when you invite half a million new people to the country every year, you better be prepared. And it’s looking more and more like we’re not.

It goes beyond the affordable-housing crunch and whether everyone will have access to primary health care. Now, some of the Calgary agencies that help people get settled in the country say uncertainty about funding from the federal government is leading to long waiting lists and layoffs.

“It’s always been a challenge, but I’ve never seen it like this. Never,” said Shirley Philips, interim chief executive at Immigrant Services Calgary, who has decades of experience in the sector.

Immigration: Canada needs a strategy, not a numbers game

ISC said they will receive less money from Ottawa – which makes up the majority of their funding – this fiscal year than last year. Contract updates from the federal government don’t reflect increased demand even as Alberta’s largest city grows by leaps and bounds, and so job vacancies won’t be filled.

Newcomers are already facing a 55-day wait to get a language proficiency assessment done, Ms. Philips said. And then four to six months to get into English classes after that. As demand continues to grow, she fears those wait times will stretch longer.

“You’ve got this talent pool that Canada says they want in their country, but we’re doing very little even at the basic level of language, employment services and housing.”

Another agency, the Centre for Newcomers, has laid off about 65 people – almost a quarter of its staff – in recent weeks. Chief program officer Kelly Ernst said the issue is a delay in contract updates with the federal government, which would provide a flow of money based on higher demand. He’s worried about some people falling through the cracks, as was the case for a newly arrived Ukrainian family he said his agency found living on the streets of Calgary last week.

“We served over 35,000 people last year, and if this continues, we’re going to break that record again this year,” Mr. Ernst said.

For its part, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said planned investment for settlement services in Alberta is increasing by 6 per cent this year, to nearly $133-million.

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“These investments align with Alberta’s proportion of all permanent resident landings,” the federal department said in a statement to The Globe and Mail.

IRCC did not comment on the situation for individual agencies, but added it has “in the past, adjusted investments over the course of the year to respond to pressures, such as an influx of newcomers, and when additional funding becomes available.”

Overall, the department’s budget is being reduced beginning this fiscal year. Temporary programs are being wound down, including the commitment to resettle at least 40,000 Afghans by the end of this year, and provisions for Ukrainians making their way to Canada.

The problem is, settlement agencies say, Afghans and Ukrainians are still coming and they still need help getting acclimatized in Canada – as do many more from all around the world.

The numbers are huge. The federal government is aiming to welcome between 410,000 and 505,000 new permanent residents this year, between 430,000 and 542,500 in 2024, and between 442,500 and 550,000 in 2025. Canada is well on its way to reaching – or exceeding – those ambitious goals, with Statistics Canada saying the country welcomed 145,417 immigrants in the first quarter of 2023, the highest number for any quarter on record. (There was also a net gain of 155,300 non-permanent residents in the first quarter.)

It’s unclear whether Calgary immigration agencies are alone in their struggle for federal funding. Edmonton MP and cabinet minister Randy Boissonnault said he’s not hearing the same concerns in Alberta’s capital.

On a percentage basis, the Alberta population is growing at a rate not seen for more than a century – back to a time when prairie sod houses were a perfectly acceptable form of housing. The provincial population has increased by 200,000 in the past 12 months, standing at more than 4.7 million. The numbers are surging in part because of interprovincial migration, but mostly as a result of new arrivals from outside of Canada.

Another factor that might not be fully quantified is that many immigrants land in Ontario or Quebec, and then make their way to Alberta – often Calgary – when they find out housing is less expensive and there’s plentiful work. This “secondary migration” might not be reflected in federal funding to settlement agencies, their leaders say.

Canada is built on immigration. There is a moral imperative for the country to help those whose lives have been torn apart by war or deeply regressive governments. Climate change is likely to force the movement of millions more.

There are also economic reasons to welcome immigrants. The country badly needs workers – everyone from medical professionals to home builders to child care providers. Canada also needs younger workers, as the country’s population grows greyer.

“We actually need a million people a year. But that would definitely crack the system,” Mr. Boissonnault said.

Calgary immigration agencies are looking to increase their budgets through private donations. And the Alberta government said in its budget that it would provide an extra $7-million over three years for settlement and language supports, on top of some regular funding. That money will start to flow by year’s end.

It all might not be fast enough. It’s already a struggle to provide affordable housing for everyone. The Bank of Canada acknowledged this as it hiked interest rates again this week, in part in another desperate attempt to dampen what appears insatiable demand for real estate in the country.

And beyond finding everyone a place to live, not having basic settlement services in place to help people as they arrive on this scale is indefensible. The soaring political messaging from Ottawa on immigration needs to come with solid support for the agencies doing the on-the-ground work.

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