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We do need more immigrants

By Anne Golden
Ottawa Citizen
September 22, 2008

Last Thursday's Citizen carried an op-ed by James Bissett, former executive director of the Canadian Immigration Service, that reiterated traditional arguments against increased immigration ("Truth and immigration"). It argued that immigrants are a net burden on the economy and social infrastructure and that immigrants push down wages for Canadian workers and add to unemployment, poverty and crime. Further the article asserted the "only reason" why political parties "push for high immigration intake" is that "they see every new immigrant as a potential vote for their party."

This position is simply wrong. Here's why.

There is no evidence in Canada that immigration pushes down wages for Canadian workers. The data most commonly cited are American and out of date. Far from being a burden on Canada's economic and social infrastructure, immigrants are essential to our economic prosperity and community vitality.
In 2006, 55 per cent of the principal applicant immigrants to Canada (138,257 persons in all) were admitted under the economic class of immigration. This included skilled workers, entrepreneurs, investors, the self-employed, and provincial nominees; in other words, immigrants who brought much-needed skills, capital, and entrepreneurial spirit.

Immigrants will be even more important in the coming years. The "baby boom" generation that entered the work force in the early 1960s to late 1970s is now beginning to retire. These workers cannot be completely replaced by recent graduates from the post-secondary and high school education systems; there are just not enough young Canadians available to do it -- thanks to the sheer size of this generation combined with our decisions to have smaller families over the past few decades. This is why Statistics Canada predicts that by 2011 all of Canada's net labour force growth will be derived from immigration. And why by 2030, it predicts that immigration will be the only source of population growth.

But what of the immigrants who have recently arrived in Canada? Mr. Bissett says that more than half live in poverty. In fact, one-fifth of immigrants entering Canada during the 1990s found themselves in chronic low income for the first five years. Yes, this rate is higher than among the Canadian born, and recent immigrants do earn less than equivalent Canadian workers. There's no question that immigrants face a tough time in establishing themselves in our country, partly because their prior skills and experience often go unrecognized.

We need to improve in these areas, not only for the sake of immigrants but for the sake of this country as a whole. The Conference Board's research has shown that closing "the learning recognition gap" among immigrants would add tens of thousands of skilled workers to the labour force resulting in a $4.1- to $5.9-billion boost to our national income.

We can also do a better job of selecting immigrants based on skills, while maintaining our commitment to immigration for family reunification and humanitarian reasons. Australia has already moved strongly in this direction -- without ignoring family class immigrants --and the unemployment rate among its skilled immigrants is seven per cent or below, 18 months after arrival. Canada is heading in the same direction with the recent reforms to its immigration system.

The current backlog in the immigration queue is a legacy of an outdated system. Canada now faces an increasingly competitive global economy, and the skills, knowledge, and diverse talents that immigrants bring will help ensure that Canada's prosperity is sustainable.

Sometimes, the politicians do get it right. 

Anne Golden is president and CEO of the Conference Board of Canada.

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