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Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister Marc Miller holds a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Nov. 1.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The most important numbers concerning Canada’s immigration system did not make an appearance in the rows and columns of figures that make up the federal government’s “2024-2026 Immigration Levels Plan.”

The freezing of immigration numbers for 2026 was little more than a punt, clearly designed to avoid further raising public concern over the stresses being placed on housing and health care by the government’s ramp-up of permanent residents, nearly doubled since the Liberals took office.

So, Immigration Minister Marc Miller provided 2026 immigration targets that simply copy and pasted the numbers for 2025. And then promised a plan to come up with a plan. “We have a lot of complex calculations we need to make and measures that we need to adjust,” he told reporters.

The government appears to have awakened to the fact that its cavalier approach to immigration is not just stressing the housing market and distorting the labour market but – of much more concern – threatening the Liberal brand.

In August, Mr. Miller edged perilously close to branding as bigots those who didn’t like the Liberals’ immigration policy, saying some people “blamed immigrants for taking houses, taking jobs, you name it.”

This week, he struck quite a different tone: “I think the eyes of Canadians are more intensely focused on immigration. They are not xenophobic.”

For the record, this week’s Mr. Miller is correct, on both counts. Canadians are paying close attention to Liberal immigration policy, and are rightly concerned over the apparent lack of control over student visas, the unprecedented rise in the number of temporary foreign workers, and most recently, news that the government created a surge of asylum applications by waiving requirements for visitor visas.

The Liberal shift on immigration is not as blatant, and not nearly as inept, as last week’s backflip on carbon pricing. But they have this much in common: The government has belatedly realized in both cases that a policy that has heretofore functioned as an effective wedge issue is now wedging in the wrong direction.

The government’s response of a freeze is politically expedient – and could even end up being economically justifiable – but it is looking in the wrong direction. Permanent residents, particularly economic migrants, are and will continue to be a key part of building Canada.

It is temporary migration that has spun out of control, both for temporary foreign workers and the student visa program. Those programs need to be pared back and returned to their roots.

The number of international students has doubled since the Liberals took office in 2015, topping 800,000 last year. The rise is being driven by bad policy, namely the decision to allow international students to work off campus. That has, unintentionally, created a back door into the labour market and to permanent residency in Canada. Mr. Miller has, so far, only picked around the edges of this problem, flagging his concerns that international students could be the victims of fraud while floating the notion of a cap on enrolments.

As this space has previously argued, the government should avoid the bickering such a cap would entail, and simply roll back the rules for student visas to where they stood in 2006, when students could only work on campus. At a stroke, that would shut down exploitative businesses masquerading as postsecondary institutions.

Similar aggressive action is needed on the question of temporary foreign workers. The Immigration Minister appears to concede, at least, that there is a problem. “We are a country that has become quite addicted to temporary foreign workers, with some perverse incentives and results that have been created,” he said Wednesday.

The Liberals have yet to match rhetoric with action. Indeed, just last week, the government extended time-limited measures that allow seven business sectors to hire up to 30 per cent of their staff through the low-wage provisions of the temporary foreign worker program. The number of such workers has nearly quadrupled from four years ago.

Mr. Miller is right to observe that Canadians are concerned about the impact of higher arrival numbers on the strained infrastructure of this county. There is no more time for another punt: The Liberals need to take immediate steps to ratchet back the numbers of temporary migrants and in doing so, clear the way for permanent immigration.

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