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Two shocking facts about the Liberals' new immigration targets: First, they're not high. Not by any measure. And second, they're not well-planned.

Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen's announcement of a gradual increase in immigration numbers drew the usual mix of alarmist and exultant headlines: More than a million newcomers by 2020! Saved from the devastation of an aging population! But Mr. Hussen was proceeding with the sort of tiptoe-step caution that has come to characterize his government. His plan is to raise skilled and family immigration by far less than 1950s, 1980s or 2000s increases, while letting refugee numbers fall back to their usual tiny slice of the immigration pie (after a 2016 peak caused by the Syrian emergency). It's not out of line with the immigration and population-growth thinking of every Tory and Liberal government of the past half century.

Read also: Justin Trudeau rolls the dice on immigration

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Indeed, the initial response from the Conservatives, via immigration critic Michelle Rempel, was not to criticize the numbers as too high but to predict that the Liberals will be incapable of meeting their economic-immigrant targets and filling the labour shortages that both parties complain about. The NDP response, also reasonable, was that more of those immigrants need to be less-skilled, because that's also where our economy needs people.

Both Mr. Hussen's proposal and the opposition responses are based on the most short-term vision of immigration: filling jobs now and meeting demographic challenges a decade from now. What is missing is the longer view of a larger, more sustainably populated Canada – one that concentrates rather than sprawls, one that uses population growth for ecological efficiency rather than waste. (This also happens to be the subject of my new book, Maximum Canada). We can hope that some such plan is in the works.

In the meantime, it's best to think of Mr. Hussen's targets as a temporary holding pattern. Since the late 1980s, Canadian immigration rates have remained fairly consistent, hovering around 0.8 per cent of the population each year (that is, around eight immigrants per 1,000 people). Rates declined somewhat in the 1990s – not out of policy desire (Prime Minister Jean Chrétien wanted that rate to increase to 1 per cent annually), but because the economy was poor, and when that happens, immigrants don't come. Then they rose again at the turn of the century, and have held at around 0.8.

Canada's new level of 300,000 makes for an immigration rate of 8.3 per thousand. Mr. Hussen's gradual increase, to 340,000 per year by 2020, would be a far smaller increase than we saw in one year alone under Brian Mulroney (who raised it by 50,000 in 1986-7) and identical to the one-year rise we experienced in 2000. It would give Canada a rate of 9 immigrants per 1,000 citizens.

That's not high by Canadian standards, and it sure isn't by world standards: It's less than the 2015 immigration rates in Britain (9.7), the Netherlands (9.9), Sweden (13.7) or Switzerland (18.5). This is not mass immigration by any stretch. We tried that a century ago: If we were to have the immigration rate of 1913, we'd have to take in 1.75 million immigrants a year. Nobody is returning to those times.

But we're stuck with a way of thinking about immigrants that's often rooted in the previous century.

Canadians, and often their government, still think of immigrants as units of labour to be plugged into factories and labs. But the typical immigrant to Canada today is not an employee; she's someone setting out to employ people, or at least manage them.

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Six out of 10 male immigrants and five out of 10 female immigrants today arrive with university degrees – twice the rate of Canadian-born people. More than half of them own a house within four years of arriving – despite the very high costs of housing in the big cities and their suburbs where immigrants settle.

In other words, we should no longer think of immigrants as sources of (or competition for) jobs, but as primary sources of new economic activity.

On the other hand, we remain mired in another legacy of 20th-century thought: that immigrants will find their way into the middle class on their own.

Children of immigrants do succeed, to an enormous degree. But the first generation tends to get lost, its members often unable to realize their potential as creators of employment. A generation ago, immigrants saw their incomes converge with Canadian averages within 15 years. Today, immigrants are 1.5 times more likely than average Canadians to live in poverty, and twice as likely to earn less than $30,000 a year, after 15 years. Only 24 per cent of immigrants with professional degrees ever get work in that field. We waste talented people.

We need to invest ahead of population growth, so it delivers benefits rather than trapping people in isolation and low incomes. We should not talk about population growth without a significant new cross-government, cross-jurisdiction program to plan and invest for it.

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