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Canada's Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Marc Miller takes part in a press conference in Ottawa on Jan. 29.Blair Gable/Reuters

If anyone needed more proof that the Liberal government has lost control of immigration, it came this week in the form of a new Statistics Canada report on the number of temporary residents in the country.

Last Thursday, Immigration Minister Marc Miller said there were 2.5 million temporary residents in Canada, and that they make up 6.2 per cent of the population. He announced that his government would reduce that share to 5 per cent over the next three years as part of an effort to reform a runaway system.

But hold on a minute: This week, on Wednesday, Statscan said there were actually 2.7 million temporary residents in Canada, and that they make up 6.5 per cent of the population.

Life comes at you fast in politics. The plan Mr. Miller announced last week to reduce the population share of temporary residents is already running behind events. Then again, it’s a stretch to call it a “plan,” since it includes no details about how it will be implemented.

The Liberal government is once again improvising solutions to the surge in immigration that has occurred under its watch. The surge is historic: Canada’s population grew by 3.2 per cent in 2023, the fastest pace since 1957, Statscan said on Wednesday. The number of temporary residents in Canada has nearly doubled in two years.

The government’s solutions to date include a two-year cap on new international students, who make up 42 per cent of temporary residents. The Liberals have also brought back visa requirements for some Mexican travellers. And they are tightening some of the rules around temporary foreign workers, such as cutting the percentage of work forces (with exceptions for health care and construction) that can be made up of TFWs.

At best, Ottawa’s recent announcements can be considered a signal to the economy and the world that changes are coming. But what the Liberals haven’t done is announce coherent policy goals that will guide immigration numbers in the future.

The need for that was heightened by two recent news items: one, a warning from the Bank of Canada that the country’s weak labour productivity and low levels of business investment are an “emergency”; the other, a new study by Scotiabank that says the population explosion of the past two years is responsible for two-thirds of Canada’s falling productivity.

It’s simple math. A glut of temporary residents makes hiring people at low wages less expensive than investing in equipment or finding ways to increase labour productivity. It’s also bad for temporary residents who have to take jobs that don’t match their skills, and who can’t afford rent.

The Liberals always say all the right things about immigration: how it built the modern Canada, and is the only way for a country with a low birth rate to grow and prosper.

What they still haven’t said is how they intend to connect future immigration levels to Canada’s economic prosperity, and what policies will give shape to that goal.

The Scotiabank report suggests there is a “sweet spot” for immigration levels that will ensure Canada grows while also maintaining productivity. But Canada blew past that sweet spot last year “by multiples,” the banks says.

Finding that sweet spot will require the government to pay attention to data, lay out its economic goals for immigration (while always keeping the door open for humanitarian cases), and stop playing with numbers.

Last week, Mr. Miller fessed up to his government’s responsibility for the state of immigration in Canada. “Public policy decisions have consequences that sometimes we don’t fully think through,” he said during a forum organized by Toronto Metropolitan University.

The Liberal government needs to learn from its mistakes and think through its next steps, so that it doesn’t overcorrect or undercorrect.

That means sharpening the points-based ranking system to ensure newcomers are best suited to the country’s needs, and setting caps that match the state of the economy and the nation’s housing infrastructure.

It means basing immigration levels on data, not on what looks good in a press release. It means remembering that the proper role of immigration is to ensure that Canada, and the people who come here, can prosper.

Above all, it means no more winging it.

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