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There have been many waves of immigration that have transformed Canada in decades past. Eastern European migrants headed to the Prairies at the start of the 20th century, forever altering the heart of the country. Canada welcomed Hungarians in the 1950s, opened its doors to non-European immigrants in the 1960s, embraced Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s and, more recently, gave a new home to those fleeing the chaos of Syria.

That proud history may only be the start of this country’s immigration story – and challenges. Immigration is set to transform Canada yet again as Ottawa increases targets to a historic high of 500,000 people annually. There have been spikes before, but this would be something quite different: a permanently higher level of immigration.

As the chart below shows, nearly a third of the population will be foreign-born by 2041, Statistics Canada forecasts. (And those figures understate the matter, since they don’t fully take into account Ottawa’s higher targets, and students and temporary workers aren’t counted.) Already in 2021, 23 per cent of the population was born outside of Canada, edging past the previous peak set in the 1920s.

Canada’s immigration policies have been a historic success, with broad and enduring public support. That is clear. But it’s equally clear that Canada has embarked upon this path of transformation without much debate, and with precious little planning from policy makers.

Overheated housing markets are just the most obvious example. Immigrants, of course, are not the reason home prices and rents have soared. But the increased pace of immigration will make it more challenging to alleviate the shortage. And newly arrived families will also have to grapple with the daunting cost of housing. There have been enough years of policy pantomime; all levels of government need to take substantive steps to accelerate the pace of housing construction.

Strained health care systems are another pressure point. It’s taken a national crisis for the health care sector to speed up the recognition of overseas credentials, a long overdue step that will allow thousands of foreign-trained nurses and doctors to reinforce overstretched health care workers.

More broadly, Canada will need immigrants as this country’s population ages in coming decades. At the same time, the Canadian economy faces a massive challenge in reigniting productivity growth in order to maintain prosperity.

Done badly, stepped-up immigration could deepen those productivity woes, make the housing crisis worse, and increase the strains in our health care and education systems.

But immigration could help to solve those vexing problems, assuming Ottawa can lay out a strategy on how to integrate new arrivals, and make the most of their skills and abilities. Such a plan is vital, as well, in showing Canadians that immigrants remain a key part of building this country.

Such a plan would start with articulating the goal of economic immigration – an improved standard of living for all Canadians. That would entail a clear-eyed review of the standards for assessing economic migrants, and an acceleration of efforts to dismantle artificial barriers that prevent any new Canadian from fully utilizing their skills and training.

Such a plan would have to take into account the ability of the housing market and other key infrastructure to accommodate newcomers without undue strain. Such a plan would not simply pick an arbitrary target of 500,000 people.

Ultimately, that could mean Canada admits fewer than 500,000 immigrants each year. Perhaps, the target could rise, if there is substantial reform of housing and labour markets. The point of this country’s immigration plan should not be a number – no, the aim should be a sustainable flow that improves the lives of all Canadians (including the very newest).

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