The world has changed, and when it comes to its immigration system, Canada is not changing fast enough to compete in it. It is no longer possible to sit back languidly, as the best and the brightest queue on its doorstep. The global market for human capital is voracious. There may always be migrants wanting to come to Canada, but they may not be the ones that Canada needs. People with options are less and less likely to tolerate hidebound and cumbersome immigration process, waiting as long as eight years to have their applications processed. If you are ambitious, if you are skilled, if you are entrepreneurial, if you are educated, if you are impatient for success, you will look elsewhere. Increasingly, elsewhere is looking better.
Countries like Australia can now fast-track applications for permanent residency in less than a year. Nor is the competition coming only from developed countries. With growing prosperity at home, not every upwardly mobile citizen of China, India and Brazil sees re-locating overseas as the only path to success. In fact, the Chinese and Indian governments are using investment, tax and visa incentives to draw the highly educated children of Chinese and Indian immigrants to their ancestral homelands.
To ensure Canada remains attractive to the sharpest minds, the keenest entrepreneurs and greatest innovators, the country must move beyond an inefficient selection system and long waits. Why should people put their careers on hold, in order to come to Canada? "International competition is starting to heat up for the best immigrants, the Frank Stronachs, the people who will drive the economy," notes Arthur Sweetman, an economist at McMaster University.
A new Gallup poll shows that Canada is the third most popular destination for people looking to relocate, with the U.S. first, and the U.K. second. Some might say that top three isn't bad. But Canada fell a spot from 2010, the global survey of 452,199 adults in 151 countries shows. Despite the recession, the U.S. remains by far the world's most desired destination for prospective migrants. Why isn't Canada in first place?
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has enacted long-overdue reforms to streamline the selection system for economic immigrants. More points will be given for younger people with language proficiency who have prearranged employment.
He also plans to tackle the backlog by closing 100,000 files involving 300,000 people. This is a necessary measure – but one with consequences. It puts a stain on Canada's credibility, and more reforms are necessary to ensure the problem doesn't recur.
There is a need for a different kind of immigration officer to be sent to Canada's missions around the world: not someone with a shiny badge, armed with a long list of bureaucratic time-consuming checks that may end up impeding people with desirable educations, entrepreneurial instincts and in-demand skills from immigrating to Canada. Instead they should be people whose job it is to find and recruit talent. Canada needs headhunters.
Canada needs to open the doors for the right kind of migrant. Faster processing times would enable Canada to take advantage of global cyclical downturns. The current unemployment rate for Spaniards under age 25 is 50 per cent, the overall rate in the country is 25 per cent. Spain has an army of highly literate, technologically savvy people sitting idle, people who could, in some cases, literally walk in and fill vacant jobs here in the hi-tech, telecommunications, mining and petroleum sectors.
Instead of having a system flexible enough to seize on such opportunities, we have immigration lawyers with stories of clients – such as a couple from South Africa with MBAs – who become so frustrated, they simply give up on Canada.
Mr. Kenney is trying. Ottawa has expanded the provincial-nominee category, which favours immigrants with prearranged employment. However, the model has some weaknesses: Newcomers entering through the nominee stream are also less educated, and have lower salaries over the long term, than those who enter through the federal points system. This category of workers remains crucial to Canada's overall program, but it will not suffice.
Ottawa must do more to ensure newcomers can convert their foreign credentials and job experience. It must address discrimination in the labour market, and gate-keeping by professional associations. But first and foremost, Canada needs to change its mentality around immigration. It should be designed as much around whom Canada wants, as who wants Canada.
It is becoming a seller's market. As Sergio Karas, a Toronto immigration lawyer, says, "People from developing countries are no longer automatically migrating to Canada." Canada must learn to compete. Educated professionals, entrepreneurs, leaders, will not waste their most productive years trying just to get through the door. They know where they are wanted, and if they're not wanted here they will pack up their bags and go to where they are, taking with them all their potential and promise.