Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) contractors, including translators, wait for the arrival of Syrian refugees at the Welcome Centre in Montreal in December, 2015.CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/The Globe and Mail

Until last week, there was a very good chance Canada would accept more immigrants this year than at any time in living memory. Instead, this could be a year when fewer people make Canada their new home than in the past.

The ambitious plans of this Liberal government to expand immigration targets and create new programs have been dashed by the coronavirus pandemic.

The challenge is to ensure the downturn is only temporary, that Canada returns to its open-door policy as quickly as possible. Otherwise, closed borders could be the most damaging legacy of this disease.

In late February, Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino outlined aggressive plans to further increase immigration to Canada. To the problems created by an aging society, low fertility and growing labour shortages, “immigration is the only solution,” the minister said in a speech to the Canadian Club in Toronto, as he outlined proposed new programs, including one that would allow municipalities to recruit immigrants.

Canada accepted 341,000 immigrants in 2019, 10,000 above target and the most since the great immigration surges that filled the Prairies before the First World War.

On March 12, the department released targets for this year and the next two years of 341,000, 351,000 and 361,000 – so a little more than a million people over three years.

About 60 per cent of those would be economic migrants, with most of the rest family members. About 50,000 would be admitted each year as refugees.

But March 12 was so long ago. Today, most of the country is in lockdown under provincial states of emergency, and the Canadian border is closed to newcomers.

“Workers, students and approved permanent residents who haven’t landed should not travel yet,” the Immigration website states, although there are plans to admit some temporary foreign workers.

Ottawa is also turning away those who had been making irregular border crossings in order to seek asylum.

It’s likely now that Canada will not meet its target of 341,000 immigrants this year – an unfortunate but inevitable consequence of the pandemic.

What will happen in 2021? Will the Liberal government greatly increase the target to make up for 2020′s reduced intake, keep to the current level of 351,000 or set a lower one? In the midst of the chaos created by this pandemic, it’s too soon to know.

Kevin Lemkay, a spokesman for Mr. Mendicino, said in a statement to The Globe and Mail that the restrictions on entry to Canada are only temporary, and that the department was continuing to accept and process applications. “Our government will remain focused on welcoming highly skilled people who can help build a stronger country,” he said.

Given its past record, it’s reasonable to expect the Liberal government will try to make up lost ground. The leading Conservative leadership candidates, Peter MacKay and Erin O’Toole, have also stressed that their party remains as open to high levels of immigration as it was when Stephen Harper was prime minister.

But Samuel Hyman, a Vancouver-based immigration lawyer, worries the pandemic could fuel nativist sentiment. No country is immune to the rising tide of nationalism that’s attacking liberal democracies and their institutions in Europe, the United States and elsewhere.

"We must be vigilant in never forgetting the lessons of history,” Mr. Hyman warned in an interview.

In 1913, when the population of Canada was only 7.2 million, more than 400,000 immigrants arrived in Canada – over five per cent of the population. But the First World War was followed by both recession and the devastating Spanish flu, which killed 55,000 people in Canada. Attitudes toward immigration hardened: by the late 1920s, the intake was down to 160,000 a year, and it cratered during the Depression.

Canada is a much more diverse and tolerant country today. In last October’s federal election, Maxime Bernier’s nativist People’s Party of Canada secured a scant 1.6 per cent of the popular vote – an impressive tribute to the continuing openness of Canadians toward newcomers.

Logically, there should be no change in attitudes toward immigration as a result of the pandemic. But logic doesn’t always guide public policy. Sometimes, policies are governed by fear.

Politicians in all parties need to fight that fear by supporting a return to wide-open immigration once this pandemic has passed.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe