Canada has big, enduring demographic challenges ahead. So why are we trying to paper them over with ever-larger temporary band-aids?
This approach provides wasteful subsidies to low-wage employers, distorting labour and housing markets, and sets up promising newcomers for exploitation.
The numbers are breathtaking. In 2015, the year Justin Trudeau’s Liberals were first elected, 352,000 international students came to Canada on temporary study permits and 251,000 workers came through the International Mobility Program, a type of temporary work permit that doesn’t require employers to look for local help first.
By 2022, each of those categories had more than doubled, with 808,000 people coming to Canada to study, and about 800,000 coming to work, as the chart below shows.
Immigration Refugees and Citizenship Canada confirmed to The Globe there are “not set levels or limits” to the number of the work or study permits, as they are “driven by demand” from employers and postsecondary institutions. Ottawa has effectively created a shadow immigration department. “Increasingly, our immigration system has moved from state-run immigration to a system that is really controlled by non-state actors – the employers, the educational institutions,” said Rupa Banerjee, a Canada Research Chair in immigration and economics at Toronto Metropolitan University.
Colleges and universities can accept all the international students they want, and charge them through the roof, even if doing so jacks up local rents and students have to pack into movie theatres because there aren’t enough classrooms.
Schools argue they need to do this because domestic enrolment and government funding have flatlined. The Ontario Auditor-General found in 2021 that domestic enrolment at the province’s colleges had fallen 15 per cent over the previous decade, while the number of international students had increased 342 per cent. International students made up 30 per cent of the student body that year, but contributed 68 per cent of the tuition revenue. At some schools, it’s more than 90 per cent.
These students do not travel thousands of kilometres to study hotel management at a small college for the academic thrill. They make the journey for the one-in-three chance (according to Statistics Canada) of getting permanent residency.
So instead of forcing postsecondary institutions to make necessary, if painful, decisions to ensure long-term financial sustainability, Ottawa is allowing schools to sell permanent-residency lottery tickets – even though it can have devastating effects on those who don’t win the draw.
Future of immigration
This is part of a series of editorials on immigration in Canada.
The federal government is likewise providing subsidies to some businesses in the form of cheap labour through the temporary foreign worker program. There may be a case for foreign workers in the agriculture sector, with its seasonal, time-sensitive work, as long as those employees are treated well. But industries such as fast food are also frequent users of the program. If the local Tim Hortons can’t find enough workers, it should raise wages, innovate or close. There is no economic imperative to prop them up; doing so makes it easier to put off productivity investments such as automation.
Ottawa should immediately begin to rein in these immigration streams through annual caps, forcing schools and low-wage employers to face their respective realities. International students can contribute much to Canada, and we to them, as long as it is at levels at which they can be properly supported. For critical sectors that badly need workers, such as health care and construction, we should look to permanent streams that don’t tie workers to their employers.
Canada wants and needs bright young people to move here to build their future. But exploitative band-aids are not the way to do it.