Anne Michèle Meggs is the former director of planning and accountability at Quebec’s ministry of immigration and the author of L’immigration au Québec: Comment on peut faire mieux.
With pressure mounting to rethink Canada’s immigration policies, it’s no surprise to see a new minister, Marc Miller, take charge of the portfolio. Over recent months, we have seen an increasing number of articles, studies and reports warning that the rapid rise in population is stretching housing and health services and that the current immigration levels might be too high. More voices are calling for a course correction or restoring balance in Canada’s immigration policy.
The federal government may, indeed, want to propose a temporary slowdown of the pace of arrivals in response to these calls for a reset, and the new minister might be more open to this approach. However, any realignment in pace, numbers or skill levels of new arrivals will be much easier said than done. Mr. Miller can certainly level off permanent immigration targets, at least for the short term, but this would make little or no difference to the number of arrivals, since almost all people arriving from other countries now do so on temporary visas and permits.
Permanent immigration planning was relevant years ago when the number of permanent residents each year coincided relatively closely with the number of new arrivals. This was because permanent immigration applications had to be made from outside Canada. It is also important to note that people arriving with permanent status benefit from the same protections and public services as Canadian citizens from the moment they land in the country.
The bulk of people granted permanent resident status these days are already living in Canada with some sort of temporary immigration status, such as a work permit or a student visa. These are not the people driving new demand for housing or health services, because they are already here.
Meanwhile, the number of people arriving as temporary residents isn’t directly managed by the federal government – there are no targets and no ceilings. The former immigration minister Sean Fraser was very clear that temporary immigration is based on the demand of postsecondary institutions and employers. The number of temporary work permit holders in Canada at the end of 2022 had soared to 798,100. The number of foreign students in Canada has also soared, with more than 807,260 in the country at the end of 2022.
The requirement to apply for permanent residence from outside the country was abolished several years ago. Most people with temporary study or work status (and their spouses and children) nevertheless arrive seduced by the promise of permanent residence. Multiple pathways for just that purpose have been put in place both federally and provincially.
Temporary residents do not have the security, rights or protections associated with permanent residence. They often can’t get a mortgage or a car loan because they’re in the country ostensibly on a temporary basis, even though the positions they hold are often permanent. Many are tied to their employer and therefore to the municipality where they work. The nature of their permit determines which public services are available to them.
Provincial governments will resist cutting back on the number of international students because they would have to find new ways to finance postsecondary institutions. These young people have also become essential to fill low-paid jobs in certain key sectors of the economy.
Employers have been led to believe that temporary immigration is the best and quickest solution for their job vacancies. But this is contrary to international evidence showing that countries with faster-growing populations are not seeing their job vacancy rates decrease: as immigrants spend their incomes, the pressure on demand for workers returns. Naturally, it is cheaper for employers to bring in foreign labour for low-paid, low-skilled jobs than to put in the effort and resources necessary to improve salaries, working conditions and productivity.
No realignment on immigration policy, whether it be slowing the pace of arrivals or getting back to focusing on selecting highly skilled immigrants, will have any effect if it does not include temporary immigration. Restoring balance to the immigration system will not be easy, but Mr. Miller must try.