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growth and productivity

Canadian Senator Ratna Omidvar says immigrants with service skills are needed and will find jobs in Canada’s economy.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Economics and immigration policy are typically wrapped together in delicate language.

We see the language of progress, of an economy's need for the labour and foreign capital that immigration brings. And we encounter the language of preservation, the need to maintain the prosperity that came before. All too easily, the latter talk is used by those who see migration in crisis terms.

Canadian Senator Ratna Omidvar, an international voice on the topic, points out that new immigrants are bringing to Canada the high-level skills and productivity improvements that are so needed in the digital economy. And Canada is good at welcoming them, she says.

But she also feels that Canadian policy makers need to remind themselves that immigrants are as diverse as the rest of the population. Some will be sought after, and others will be less skilled yet are just as capable of finding jobs, she says.

The economic benefit of immigration has always been an influx of labour and foreign capital. How is this changing with the digital economy?

The nature of the labour market has changed, there is no doubt about it, with different kinds of people who have different kinds of skills and education. We're looking for people with skills that are different than the ones we would have looked for, say, 15 years ago.

But I think this is something we have to keep watching and respond to – to not be rigid in our immigration system. If the labour market is looking for different talents, our system has to be flexible enough to respond to it.

In our global economy, similar skills are needed everywhere in the world. Do you think people coming to Canada generally have the skills needed most?

That's a big basket of people. They are not all selected for the labour market. A large number are, but some are children and spouses of the people who are selected. So, when you disaggregate that pool, you're talking about a much smaller percentage of people who are directly destined for the labour market.

We get the people who we pick and choose very carefully, through a system that has gone through significant evolution, to meet the needs of employers.

I met just two days ago with a young Indian who graduated from a postsecondary school in Maryland with a master's degree in cybersecurity. He has just arrived as a permanent resident in Canada, selected through our system, and he asked me for help. And I said, "I don't think you need my help. You are going to be just fine." These are the kinds of people we seem to be bringing in.

Yet the digital economy is not just about technical skills. It's also about entrepreneurship and people skills, a culture of open-concept offices and serendipitous interactions in the hallway. Are newcomers still facing cultural barriers?

It can be a hurdle. In Canada we work, more or less, in teams. Collaboration is highly prized, and yet some of the cultures in primary-source countries [from which immigrants come], like India and China, have more of a hierarchical way of doing things. There are some conversations that are hard to be a part of.

Let me give you an example: the glories of summer camp. Some of us have never been. And I know it's trivial, but those watercooler conversations, about baseball or hockey, are hard to enter into. And often those conversations lead to, "And by the way, what about ...," something else that's business related.

How can businesses be more inclusive, then, to raise productivity?

The most important thing, I believe, is for corporations to see talent where they may well be blind to it. You've heard about the levels of unconscious bias that still exist in Canada, when corporations are looking at résumés. [She notes a research study released in 2017 from the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs, which found that job applicants with Asian names were 28 per cent less likely to be called for an interview than job applicants with Anglo names, even if their education and job experience was similar and Canadian in origin.]

Talking about employment hurdles for skilled immigrants can seem like such a different conversation than talking about asylum seekers at the border. Yet are they changing the discussion of economic immigration in Canada?

I will say this, Canada is not immune to those fears and those expressions of "Let's get back to where we were before." That's basically what [U.S. President Donald] Trump is saying, what parts of Europe are saying. And the truth is, you can't go back to where you were before.

We have systems and processes. And, by and large, they work well. Every now and then, we will tweak them. We've been incredibly innovative in the past five or six years in improving things like the backlog of applicants that was lining up, the quick review of asylum applications. We've streamlined a whole bunch of things. So, there's public confidence, I believe, that things will be dealt with.

So, there is sufficient nimbleness to fit in with the current economy?

I think there are some gaps. An economy, whether it is a digital economy or a manufacturing economy or – what does urbanist Richard Florida call it – the "creative-class economy," there is never one kind of worker you want.

You need people with high skills and high talent. You need people who can serve in our medical system. You need people in hospitality, because tourism is growing; you need marketers, but you also need people who work in the rooms and make up the beds.

Somehow we've leaned toward only bringing in immigrants with high skills, so that they will stay and put down roots. We forget about the people who are going to wash the dishes and work on the farms. I would like our government to have a lens on the economy which is focusing both on the high skills and talent, but also on the service talent that we need.

That's where we can make the link with some of the refugees that are coming in. We can be both compassionate and serve our economy. The government doesn't seem to be interested in doing that.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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