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Michael Barutciski is a faculty member of York University’s Glendon College. He teaches law and policy with a focus on migration issues.

That Canadians have been debating aspects of immigration policy this summer is, on its own, unusual. After years of record-setting admission numbers, systemic problems such as the generalized housing shortage and the surge of homeless asylum seekers have prompted debates about whether the number of admissions is too high – though admirably, Canada’s traditional widespread openness and commitment to immigration remains unquestioned. But what’s also unusual is the way we are talking about immigrants, because official and media sources have presented the yearly number of immigrants to the country in a way that hasn’t been as clear and upfront as possible about recent changes in immigration policy.

In the past, the term “immigrant” was generally used to designate permanent residents who had been admitted to the country. As a consequence, Canadians had grown accustomed over the past few decades to hearing that their country was admitting roughly 200,000 to 400,000 immigrants a year. In March, however, then-immigration minister Sean Fraser announced that Canada had brought in a million new immigrants in the previous year. While the sudden huge increase was largely unexplained, careful observers figured it out: the new statistics included temporary residents, such as international students, along with the usual permanent resident numbers.

This has stemmed from an explosion in the granting of temporary resident visas since the Liberals came to power in 2015. The Liberals were also still able to issue a large number of authorizations for permanent residency during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the borders were closed, by relying on the selection of temporary residents who were already in Canada. This approach is becoming the new way of selecting many of the country’s permanent residents.

In other words, temporary migrants already have become a significant part of the country’s immigration policy; the data has just caught up with that reality. The problem is that nobody has actually explained this major change to the host population. The implications need to be discussed openly and honestly, and it is impossible to do so if the relevant information is not made public.

According to s. 94 of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, the immigration minister is supposed to provide Parliament with a report that explains many details focusing on the permanent residents who are admitted every year. This provision is now incomplete given this shift in reporting basic statistics. Parliamentarians should amend the legislation so that Canadians can be properly informed not only about permanent residents, but also temporary residents.

All opposition parties should push for this amendment. The Liberals have somewhat downplayed their role in the evolving language, maintaining that temporary visas depend on demand from employers and postsecondary institutions. Yet the federal government ultimately controls the authorization and issuance of visas. If employers looking for cheap labour and cash-strapped educational institutions really are able to guide the country’s immigration policy based on their own narrow interests, that would disregard the implications for the rest of the country.

There seems to be an ideological dimension to the shift, and it has been implemented in a way that goes beyond the traditional consensus amongst Canadians. When she was foreign affairs minister, Chrystia Freeland illustrated this vision when she rushed to Toronto’s Pearson Airport in 2019 to greet the newly arrived asylum seeker Rahaf Mohammed. Her characterization of the Saudi teenager that day as a “brave new Canadian” was technically premature if we go by the country’s Citizenship Act. Some have similarly started to refer to asylum seekers as “newcomers,” even though in most cases, their ultimate status and right to remain in Canada is unknown. This generous use of inclusive terminology regarding community membership is not understood by average Canadians, and threatens to upset the informal agreement that positively informs our politics: that immigration enriches Canada.

All these changes to Canada’s immigration policy may represent potentially interesting new ideas, but they need to be clearly presented and debated to keep the public on board. Marc Miller, who took over for Mr. Fraser as Immigration Minister in July, would be wise to proceed cautiously and reassure Canadians that their country is not being transformed too quickly by the improvised and ad hoc application of new concepts. The place of temporary status in the overall immigration scheme provides one important example where recent developments need to be properly scrutinized. An amendment to Canada’s immigration legislation is needed to make sure this happens.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to the terms "temporary resident visas" and "temporary resident status" as "temporary resident permits" and "temporary permits".

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