Ken Coates is a Distinguished Fellow and director of the Indigenous affairs program at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, and a Canada Research Chair at the University of Saskatchewan.
Canada, without a doubt, has been deeply enriched by immigration. Waves of newcomers, starting with French and British explorers all the way to the planned broadening of the immigration pool to include 500,000 new arrivals from around the world a year, by 2025, have brought with them their talents, cultures and enthusiasm for a chance at a new life.
Much like new Canadians themselves, Canada has adapted, creating a stronger but different country as immigration trends evolved. Canada’s already impressive cultural diversity continues to grow and flourish. There appears to be an informal agreement between Canada’s major political parties, and most provinces other than perhaps Quebec, that newcomers can solve critical labour shortages.
Despite all the exciting change that migrants bring, however, Canadians too often take an almost casual approach to immigration policy itself – and its corollary, which is how we ensure immigrants integrate comfortably into our country. With the government promising to continue to increase Canada’s immigration volumes, it’s worth considering how the country is changing and how policy makers might manage that change deliberately and thoughtfully.
The scale of the migration is stunning. Each year, Canada will admit a group of newcomers that is 10 times greater than the population of the Yukon or an influx roughly equal to the population of Newfoundland. Every two years of immigration brings enough newcomers to nearly match the population of Nova Scotia or Saskatchewan.
Yet as our population grows, the demographic and political importance of the country’s smaller jurisdictions fade considerably. Canada has become a nation of city-states, dominated economically and politically by a handful of major metropolitan areas, where most immigrants move. According to 2021 census data compiled by Environics chief demographer Doug Norris, 79.6 per cent of the Greater Toronto Area’s population are first- and second-generation newcomers; in Vancouver, the number is 72.5 per cent. Major cities such as these sustain the current Liberal government, and will almost certainly determine the outcome of future national elections.
Indeed, the benefits of immigration are distributed unequally across Canada’s vast geography. Smaller communities, including resource towns under threat from federal antidevelopment strategies and rapid technological change, are attracting few immigrants, and the influx is nowhere near enough to staunch the steady decline of rural and small town Canada.
To address this, the federal government has suggested that it is prioritizing immigration to rural areas and small towns. Yet only a small number of newcomers will end up there. Many of those who do are likely to migrate to the larger cities later, chasing perceived job and life opportunities, as well as the larger cultural and language communities that exist there. A focus on attracting and retaining immigrants in those places is needed.
Canada is blessed to be known as one of the most attractive destinations for international migrants and our immigration procedures are globally recognized for prioritizing the admission of individuals and families who can best contribute directly to the Canadian economy. Yet, we do little to aid the transition of migrants into our society.
Arriving migrants need support with job searches, recognition of credentials, language training, cultural and political awareness, housing, and more. Their children will require considerable resources as they enter Canada’s public-school systems. Though NGOs and intergovernmental co-operation play a major role in facilitating these key components of immigration, policy makers too often relegate these considerations to afterthoughts. This is a disservice to new Canadians most especially, but also to the communities that welcome them.
Mass migration presents considerable challenges for Indigenous peoples as well. There are, according to the 2021 Canadian census, some 1.8 million First Nations, Metis and Inuit in Canada. At current rates, four years’ worth of immigration is equal to that entire Indigenous population today, further diminishing the relative political power of Canada’s first peoples.
Most new Canadians also have little familiarity with the people, cultures, histories and rights of Indigenous communities, and understandably so. Without concerted effort to correct for this lack of knowledge, there is a real risk that Indigenous needs and interests will fall further down the priority list for the growing electorate and, therefore, for governments.
Canada can and should embrace change, and immigration has a positive role to play in this. But it needs to be thoughtfully done. Our current approach to immigration feeds our national strengths – a set of truly world-class, multicultural cities and a rapidly expanding service economy – but it also exacerbates existing weaknesses. It need not be this way. It is time for an open, frank and supportive conversation about how to better foster the success of newcomers, and of the future of Canada.