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

A year ago, then-immigration minister Sean Fraser presented Canada’s record immigration growth numbers as an unambiguously positive development. Since then, however, it has become clear that our population has expanded faster than the economy – and to complicate matters, the demographic boom was at least partly driven by significant numbers of temporary foreign work permits for low-wage jobs. Despite the minister’s eloquent promotion of openness and diversity, this parallel immigration stream was lowering GDP per capita; according to the National Bank of Canada, this has put the country in a population trap.

Mr. Fraser’s replacement in the immigration portfolio is Marc Miller, a quiet leader who now says he will “rein in” what he calls “a system that’s run a bit rampant for far too long.” But while he has announced a cap on international student permits, the large intake of temporary foreign workers remains the bigger challenge. There were negligible numbers of such migrants until about a decade ago, but since then, we have gone off course. Mr. Miller will have to act quickly before the situation undermines public confidence in the positive economic contribution of immigration.

While temporary visas for low-wage jobs have boomed, the percentage of newcomers admitted as permanent residents through the points-based system has dropped. Canada’s economic immigration system was never intended to supply businesses with legions of low-skilled, supposedly temporary workers filling what would typically be considered permanent jobs in non-critical sectors, such as food services or accommodation, but it now allows businesses to avoid investing in innovation and productivity. This ultimately contributes to lower living standards for Canada’s growing population.

The recent proliferation of non-point pathways to permanent resident status has aggravated the imbalance between permanent and temporary residents. The bottleneck that this creates – too many temporary residents are now waiting for a limited number of permanent spots – has resulted in more visa overstaying. Mr. Miller acknowledges Canada is now home to between 300,000 and 600,000 undocumented migrants, though other estimates are considerably higher.

Several measures could be taken to address this. Mr. Miller should start by announcing that foreign worker numbers will be reduced even more significantly than what he has implemented for international students. The various pathways should also be revisited to restore balance between temporary and permanent residents.

There are two primary streams for temporary foreign workers (neither of which include students and postgraduates who have been allowed to work), and both are growing. The first stream requires employers to get a labour market impact assessment (LMIA), to confirm a need for the worker; LMIA rules may have to be tightened. But preventing low-skill and low-wage jobs from being advertised as “LMIA-approved” would be unwise, as such workers have much to contribute. The long-term issue is about proportion. Indeed, it may be that the current imbalance will only be resolved by moving to relatively high intake numbers for both temporary and permanent residents.

The other stream promotes exchanges through the somewhat opaque International Mobility Program. The IMP was once a small source of migration advertised as aiming to advance “Canada’s broad economic and cultural national interests”; now, the government presents it as a way to “hire a temporary worker without a [LMIA].” The vast majority of the roughly 605,000 temporary foreign workers admitted in 2022 came from this program. The intended purpose and use of this stream needs to be clarified.

A legislative amendment should also require the minister to include such details and future planning in reports to Parliament. And in the short term, aside from readjusting the overall immigration balance, Ottawa could shift proportions within the temporary streams to prioritize helping critical industries such as health care, construction, educational services and agriculture.

There may be pushback from businesses that have grown dependent on this source of cheap labour, but this can be mitigated if their concerns are taken seriously when they tell the government that Canadians are unwilling to do certain jobs. We cannot dismiss the reality that part of the service sector can only survive with low-wage, low-skill foreign workers. This issue is not unique to Canada, though, and it will not disappear tomorrow.

To maintain Canada’s pro-immigration consensus, welcoming newcomers should generally be tied to a pro-economic-growth vision. Allowing many businesses to depend on low-skill temporary workers disincentivizes investments that increase productivity, so Mr. Miller should reduce the proportion of temporary resident visas in relation to permanent ones. The challenge will be in doing this humanely, while recognizing the contribution of low-skill migrants.

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