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Toronto mayoral candidate Rob Ford.

Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and

In response to a question in a televised debate about the prospect of Tamil refugees coming to Toronto, mayoral candidate Rob Ford said: "We can't even take care of our 2.5 million people. It's more important that we take care of the people now, before we start bringing in more."

Mr. Ford's statements should be examined seriously, not assumed to be demagogic.

While immigration puts some pressure on social services in the short run, the city's economy and social fabric benefit from immigration.

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Immigrants bore a disproportionate brunt of the recent recession. Employment for those in Canada less than five years fell by 12.9 per cent, more than five times the decline experienced by the Canadian-born. That can increase the stress on the city, which is responsible for administering welfare programs.

In the long term, though, immigrants and refugees are of net economic benefit. Well-off workers, which immigrants can become, contribute more to the city's tax base than they consume in social spending. One sign of this potential is in immigrants' educational attainment, which exceeds what the labour market can provide. In 2008, "42 per cent of immigrant workers aged 25 to 54 had a higher level of education for their job than what was normally required, while 28 per cent of Canadian-born workers were similarly overqualified," according to Statistics Canada.

A future mayor should, indeed, "take care of the people now" - by improving public services, but also with policies and advocacy to make sure the city is well prepared to make the most of its immigrants, present and future.

Mr. Ford's argument would have more credibility if he paid more attention to the facts. The official plan anticipates Toronto's population to be 3.08 million in 2031, or around a 500,000 increase in 20 years, not, as Mr. Ford said, an increase of one million in 10 years.

So while Toronto does not work as well as it should, that is not because Toronto is besieged by newcomers.

As the new mayoral front-runner, Mr. Ford has faced his share of criticism, including, now, for criminal charges incurred 11 years ago. The voters should not focus on that. By questioning one of the premises on which Toronto, and Canada, were built, Mr. Ford has presented an opportunity to reaffirm that today's Torontonians are, to a large extent, yesterday's outsiders, and to have a conversation about how to make the city work better, for current and future residents, of every provenance.

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