Canada has emerged as the only developed country in the world that continues to embrace high levels of immigration. Is it time for a rethink?
Increasing worry over housing costs and suppressed incomes have some some analysts urging a cutback in immigration levels. Others, including this writer, continue to champion immigration as the best means to counter societal aging, promote growth and boost social dynamism.
Right now, all major national parties support high levels of immigration. That consensus has kept Canada from descending into the polarizing fights over newcomers that plague other countries. To preserve that consensus, the time may have come for a commission on the future of immigration.
The annual migrant intake in Canada rose to more than 313,000 in 2019, from 250,000 in 2001; during that time, levels in the United States remained flat, at slightly more than one million legal newcomers annually, even though polls show more Americans want immigration increased than want it decreased.
“If you peel back one layer of the onion, you quickly realize that the numbers are driven by an increase in support for immigration from the left and a decrease in support for immigration from the right,” said Ali Noorani, who heads the National Immigration Forum, a think tank based in Washington. “And I think you attribute that really to the Trumpification of the Republican Party.”
Net migration in Great Britain declined after the Brexit referendum and again with the pandemic. In the years ahead, immigration from the European Union is expected to remain down, partly but not fully counterbalanced by increased non-EU immigration.
As for Europe, much of its legal migration takes the form of EU citizens moving between states.
The real surprise is Australia and New Zealand. Both countries have traditionally relied heavily on immigration for economic and population growth. When the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, both responded with air-tight border closures and strict lockdowns. As a result, they are largely COVID-free.
But opening their borders anytime soon would expose their societies to the coronavirus. Analysts believe it could take a decade for Australian immigration to return to prepandemic levels. And closed borders reinforce anti-immigrant sentiment. The New Zealand government intends to permanently restrict immigration postpandemic.
But in Canada, the Liberal government is on track to land more immigrants this year than at any time in this country’s history, mostly by converting graduated students, temporary foreign workers and asylum seekers already here into permanent residents. The Conservative and New Democratic parties also support robust immigration levels.
But thoughtful voices are starting to question the consensus. Howard Anglin, who was deputy chief of staff to former prime minister Stephen Harper, wrote in The Hub that an “air of unreality” informs immigration policy: “At the same time economists are warning us about an overinflated housing market … the federal government is planning an historically large surge in immigration.”
Don Wright, the former head of the public service in British Columbia, believes businesses rely on immigrants to keep wages low. Canadians need “to ask themselves some uncomfortable questions with a social justice lens about the country’s immigration policy,” he wrote for Public Policy Forum. “Is it right to view immigrants primarily as a source of low-cost workers?”
On the other side, organizations such as the Conference Board of Canada insist high levels of immigration are needed to offset societal aging and maintain economic growth. And we must not underestimate the entrepreneurial spirit and creative energy that immigrants add to Canadian society.
Lisa Lalande, chief executive officer of Century Initiative, which advocates for increased immigration, believes that smart policy can accommodate housing, income and environmental concerns while still preserving high levels of immigration. “It doesn’t have to be either/or,” she told me.
Earlier this year, former prime minister Brian Mulroney, who believes Canada should greatly increase its population, called for a white paper on immigration policy. Perhaps we need to go even further.
Whoever forms the government after the expected fall election should consider creating a commission of inquiry into immigration, with a mandate to determine how many immigrants Canada should be bringing in and how best to integrate them.
We must prevent the kind of polarization over newcomers that is tearing other countries apart, while preserving our diverse, open-hearted, multicultural society. Let’s just make sure we’re doing it right.
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