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How Canada can support immigration in the era of Brexit and Trump

Craig Alexander
Senior Vice-President and Chief Economist
The Conference Board of Canada
Kareem El-Assal Kareem El-Assal
Research Associate,
Education and Immigration Research

This article was originally published in The Globe and Mail on May 9, 2017.

As anti-immigrant tides spread globally, it’s important for us as Canadians to learn from the international context to ensure support for our immigration system remains strong. This is especially crucial as Canada looks to increase its immigration levels to help fill the void left by the millions of workers soon to retire.

Fears over immigration in Britain and America have arisen for several reasons. Both countries have experienced large flows of immigration that they have been unable to control. Britain’s European Union membership allows immigrants from across the continent to arrive legally to pursue economic opportunity. Meanwhile, undocumented immigrants have arrived in the U.S. for decades in search of the American Dream.

Given the major recession of 2008–09, the decline in manufacturing jobs and overall economic uncertainty, it’s understandable that citizens of Britain and America feel apprehensive about unmanaged newcomer arrivals. Immigrants have long benefited both nations’ economies, but with many of their citizens experiencing deteriorating economic conditions, immigrants have undeservedly taken considerable blame.

Canada’s immigration context is unlike that of Britain and America. The nation’s geography has helped control who comes here. And Canada’s approach to immigration policy is different.

Since 1995, Canada has selected most of its immigrants based on skill. Consequently, Canadians view immigration as an important economic development tool—a perception that has become increasingly commonplace in recent decades, according to public polls.

Moreover, Canada devotes significant resources to help immigrants integrate into its economy and society. Today, the federal government alone spends some $1.2-billion on immigrant supports each year—a fourfold increase compared with the late 1990s. Provinces, territories, and municipalities also spend millions on newcomer supports. For instance, the Ontario government devotes over $100-million annually.

So, we know that Canada’s immigration context is much different. That means we’re in the clear, right?


It would be a mistake to assume we’re immune to anti-immigrant tides. Another deep economic recession could swing the pendulum in favour of those who want to see fewer immigrants arrive here. Anti-immigrant voices could also become louder if more of our newcomers struggle to find their way in the country.

Here’s what Canada can do to maintain public support for its immigration system.

First, we should continue to admit the lion’s share of our immigrants for economic purposes. Those with high human capital are likely to succeed in Canada. Our aging population and low birth rate requires us to prioritize the economic goals of our immigration system. Canada should also continue to reunite families and admit refugees quickly, and ensure they have opportunities to succeed in the labour market.

Second, while we know that Canada needs to increase immigration levels, we must do so following careful contemplation. Many considerations—including economic conditions, regional needs, public opinion, the availability of jobs and social services for Canadians and newcomers—must be evaluated before determining how many more immigrants to admit.

Some argue Canada should admit significantly more newcomers in a national-building effort. However, increased immigration levels should not come at the expense of decreased economic and social conditions. Indeed, that is a path to disaster and a loss of public support for immigration.

Third, we need to continue to devote significant efforts to helping immigrants find their footing so they can make lasting contributions to Canada, as they have done throughout our nation’s history. Immigrants come here to build a better life, and by providing them with the right tools, such as employment and language supports, Canada will place them on the path to success. By effort, we do not necessarily mean increasing government spending on immigrant supports. As the Syrian refugee initiative has shown us, friendship and compassion demonstrated by communities across Canada are more important to newcomer integration than any amount of government funding.

Fourth, national dialogue about immigration’s value to Canada is essential in these uncertain times. Some Canadians are unaware of our nation’s need for immigrants. Rather than judge them, we should help them understand immigration’s contribution to our high quality of life. In particular, it’s key to highlight how immigrants are complements, not substitutes, for domestic workers. Dialogue can also help our diverse citizens identify similarities, bridge differences, and work towards common goals.

The 150th anniversary of our nation provides us with yet another opportunity to celebrate immigration’s role in Canada’s prosperity. Canada has long placed its trust in newcomers, who, in turn, have repaid the country in countless ways.

That’s been Canada’s story for 150 years.

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