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Canada’s Immigration System: 150 Years Later

| Jun 21, 2017
Kareem El-Assal Kareem El-Assal
Senior Research Associate and
Senior Network Manager
, Immigration

With Canada’s 150th anniversary just around the corner, The Conference Board of Canada has released a new report looking at the evolution of the country’s immigration system.

Upon Confederation, immigration was spelled out as only one of three areas of shared jurisdiction under the Constitution. Immigration was so important to Canada’s success that both the federal government and the four founding provinces felt it was necessary for them to preside over the area together.

And indeed, in the early years following Confederation, they governed the area to populate the country’s farms, spur economic growth, and build the nation. But then, provincial participation in immigration became limited for eight decades, until Quebec’s Quiet Revolution in the 1960s mobilized its renewed engagement in the area as it sought more francophone immigrants to offset its declining birth rate and strengthen its demographic weight within Canada.

Eleven other provinces and territories (all except Nunavut) eventually followed suit. Today, they manage immigrant selection and settlement with the federal government, making Canada among only a few countries in which more than one level of government formally presides over immigration matters.

An important question, however, is how effective is the Canadian approach to governing immigration?

Our report tackles this question.

Immigrant Selection: The Pros and Cons
On the one hand, providing Canada’s provinces and territories with the ability to nominate immigrants (the Constitution gives the federal government the final say on whether to admit an immigrant into Canada) has several benefits. It promotes the distribution of immigrants across Canada and gives the provinces and territories the ability to identify immigrants who can meet their labour-market and linguistic (i.e., francophone) needs. Research also indicates that those nominated by provinces and territories have positive labour-market outcomes. Moreover, providing Quebec with greater selection powers than any other province and territory respects its autonomy that many feel is good for Canadian unity.

On the other hand, Canada now has over 50 immigrant selection streams, which can be confusing to navigate. Expert practitioners, such as immigration lawyers and consultants, find it difficult to keep up with Canada’s constantly evolving selection streams. Imagine what it’s like being a prospective immigrant to Canada!
Another concern is that most provinces and territories do not have immigration laws and regulations in place to ensure fairness for immigration candidates and to protect their jurisdictions from bad actors who seek to abuse their immigration programs.

Settlement Programs: Strengths and Challenges
Both levels of government fund and administer settlement services to provide newcomers with language, employability, and community supports to facilitate their integration into Canadian society. The federal government is the biggest funder of these services.
Hence, the federal government can ensure that the quality of services across Canada is comparable. This gives newcomers a good chance of succeeding regardless of where they choose to settle in the country, which contributes to nation-building.

However, the reliance on federal funding of the provinces, territories, and organizations that deliver settlement services creates challenges. Namely, the federal government has stringent funding guidelines in place to ensure quality services and protect taxpayer dollars, but some stakeholders complain that these guidelines restrict their flexibility to deliver services tailored to local needs. Another challenge is that federal funds do not cover services for temporary residents, such as international students, who are groups of people that Canada seeks to retain as immigrants. Covering them would be expensive.

Another challenge is that, for the most part, the provinces and territories offer limited services to their immigrants and temporary residents due to their funding constraints. Indeed, these constraints are the main reason why they are unable to fill services gaps for temporary residents.

A New Era of Canadian Immigration Governance
Now, 150 years later, immigration is just as, if not more, important to Canada’s success as it was upon Confederation. As such, both levels of government are working together to ensure that immigration benefits the country. Our report spells out policy options for improvement and an aspirational approach to governing Canada’s immigration system in the 21st century.

Download the report for free here: A New Era: Canadian Immigration Governance in the 21st Century.

Canadian Immigration Summit 2018
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