To fully benefit from immigration, we need to boost newcomer supports

Canadian Economics

By: Iain Reeves

This op-ed was originally published by The Globe and Mail on February 22, 2022.

Last week, Immigration Minister Sean Fraser set ambitious new targets for Canada’s immigration levels. The plan will see Canada receive 1.3 million immigrants over three years, starting with 431,645 in 2022 and rising to 451,000 by 2024. Each year of the plan will set a record for annual immigrant arrivals.

This is a plan driven by a desire to address labour shortages, including essential industries and growth sectors. The Conference Board of Canada’s research shows that this approach will benefit the economy broadly and can aid with economic recovery.

Indeed, if executed well, the plan can deliver even more significant benefits for communities, sectors and businesses that desperately need people. Many of Canada’s smaller communities could benefit from the skilled labour and entrepreneurship of immigrants to boost local economies and reverse demographic declines. Meanwhile, employers across many industries are desperate for skilled labour to sustain and grow their businesses and organizations.

Of course, immigration should also be beneficial to newcomers themselves. If the settlement process is successful, economic immigrants find appropriate work to support themselves and their families. This provides them with a platform to settle, benefit from and contribute to Canadian society.

The government has well-founded confidence that it can achieve these targets. Through program flexibility and innovation, operational adaptations and incredible hard work, Canada welcomed an all-time record of 401,000 new permanent residents in 2021. Fortunately, immigrants were still able to access many of the settlement services and supports they would expect in normal times.

As the system stabilizes and Canada aims to welcome record numbers of immigrants, the work is only just beginning. Government and the immigration sector must turn their minds toward ensuring the successful settlement and integration of immigrants who have arrived in Canada during the pandemic. Without bringing similar flexibility, innovation and hard work to this part of the process, our record influx of immigrants won’t achieve their full potential.

One of the best things Canada can do to help immigrants settle successfully is to select individuals who are most likely to integrate quickly and effectively into the economy. Several factors are important in determining whether immigrants find employment that matches their skills and experience.

The Express Entry program already focuses on the broad social capital characteristics that lead to long-term economic success, such as education, official language knowledge and age. This provides a sound base for our economic immigration system.

However, our system could do more to complement the existing economic program. Canadian experience gained as either a worker or student allows potential immigrants to begin the settlement process, form networks and gain an understanding of Canadian culture. It can also arm them with work experience or a credential that is more familiar to Canadian employers and easier to assess. Further rewarding Canadian experience in the selection process, as the government did to shore up levels in 2021, could diversify the skill profile of the new immigrant work force.

Continuing to engage employers, industries, provinces and municipalities to select immigrants to meet stable and significant labour market needs could help fortify economic outcomes and benefits. This also extends to attracting and supporting immigrant entrepreneurs. When immigrants start new businesses or purchase existing ones, they grow our economy and employ others.

Immigrant settlement services help newcomers learn English or French, orient to their communities and find work. Settlement service providers have positively impacted immigrant integration for years and have adapted brilliantly to continue delivering services during the pandemic.

Unfortunately, settlement service funding has not kept up with the growth in the immigration levels plan over the past couple years. Adequate funding ensures timely services are available to those who need them. Further, organizations need the space to innovate and adapt. Settlement funding must follow the ambition of the levels plan.

More and more communities across Canada are becoming pro-active in trying to welcome and retain immigrants. Immigration programs, information and orientation services, and the role of communities and employers are playing a role in attracting more immigrants to communities outside our major cities. Not every immigrant is best served in their lifestyle, economic integration and settlement by living in a major city. Settling in a greater diversity of locations also flattens the infrastructure costs of a growing population, while the benefits of immigration are shared.

In a pandemic period where countries are uncertain about how and when to re-establish their immigration system, Canada is setting a different course. Canada can distinguish itself globally and gain significant benefits through this ambitious strategy. However, attracting immigrants is only half of the process. The integration story of immigrants who arrive during the pandemic will determine whether this period is a generational success, or a missed opportunity.