Susan Delacourt: COVID-19 has made Canada wary of newcomers. So how can Ottawa make the case for the immigrants we so desperately need?

More on Minister Mendicino’s thinking:

On the fateful day in March that the COVID-19 virus officially became an international pandemic, Canada’s immigration minister, Marco Mendicino, was paying tribute to employers who hire newcomers to this country.

The ceremony was held at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa on March 11 and, as the proceedings were getting under way, the host read aloud a bracing bulletin from German chancellor Angela Merkel. The virus, Merkel had just declared, could infect up to 70 per cent of Germans.

Mendicino was stopped in his tracks. A little over a week before, he had been sitting beside Merkel at an immigration-themed event in Berlin, where he had been invited to share stories of how Canada handled the integration of newcomers.

That event had been a big deal for a rookie minister, only sworn into cabinet a few months earlier. But this news from Merkel in Germany was suddenly a much bigger deal.

“That was the moment. That was enough to give me and everybody else in the room pause,” Mendicino said. “It was the moment that the world changed for me.”

What made this moment even more surreal is that it came only one day before Mendicino was due to make the annual announcement on how many immigrants would be welcomed to Canada in the years ahead — 341,00 for the coming year; 361,000 by 2022.

Even as Mendicino was gamely rolling out this plan on the Thursday of that week, however, the world was closing its doors. Donald Trump had shut down entry of all travellers from Europe the night before. Canada’s own prime minister, Justin Trudeau, went into isolation that day, after his wife tested positive for the coronavirus.

Mendicino was asked at his March 12 news conference about how he could possibly be talking about welcoming more immigrants to Canada while borders were slamming shut all over the planet.

“We are at a moment where we are responding to COVID-19, but we also are planning for the future,” he said. “The future of this country depends on immigration. We need to continue to grow because we have an aging population, an aging workforce.”

Making the case for immigration in an increasingly insular, inward-looking world was already a hard sell. Mendicino says that he and Trudeau talked about this candidly when he was asked to take on the job after the last election. Canada is a lot more polarized over immigration today than it was in the heady days for Trudeau after the 2015 election, when one of the first big gestures of the new Liberal government was to welcome floods of Syrian refugees to Canada.

Since then, Trump has become president; Britain has voted to leave the European Union; and repeated polls in this country show that sentiments about immigration are hardening.

In the midst of this, COVID-19 has very conveniently handed a big win to all those political forces looking for larger walls between nations and stricter limits on who gets into their countries. Add to that the record unemployment the pandemic is causing and, one assumes, accompanying resentment at anyone coming to this country to do jobs Canadians could do.

It didn’t help fans of immigration either that in the early days of the crisis almost all the cases of COVID-19 had come to this country from abroad. Xenophobia, meet germophobia.

Where has that put Canada’s immigration minister in this crisis? I joked to Mendicino before interviewing him this week about whether he is now the Maytag repairman of cabinet, on lonely call, but presiding over a system that has effectively been shut down until further notice.

Mendicino emphatically disagrees with the premise of that joke. For the past two months, he’s set up his office in the basement of his home in Toronto and he hasn’t been short of things to do. While he remains vague on what’s happened to that 341,000 immigrants target — “we’ll have more to say in the fall” — Mendicino would say that people are still arriving here.

According to rough counts from Mendicino’s department, about 3,000 permanent residents arrived in Canada in April — a massive decline from the usual 25,000 or so who arrive as permanent residents each month during normal times. In the first three months of this year, Canada took in nearly 70,000 permanent residents, but the numbers started to tail markedly downward in the last half of March, once the pandemic hit. In addition, the immigration department was busy in April welcoming a little more than 20,000 temporary foreign workers into the country.

Canada still needs immigrants, maybe more now than ever before, Mendicino says, as the pandemic exposes just how dependent this country is on those who come here from abroad to work in essential businesses.

“The notion that somehow immigration has stopped doesn’t square with the reality that we are continuing to welcome temporary workers, international students and continuing to land those who wish to come to Canada, and lend their experience, their hard work to our country,” Mendicino says.

It should be said that for all the help that COVID-19 has given to arguments for closed borders, the pandemic has also forced Canadians to look at how much the economy depends on welcoming workers from elsewhere.

The havoc that the pandemic has been wreaking in long-term-care homes, for instance, has shone a light on how that whole sector is highly dependent on immigrants. Hospitals are similarly reliant. According to StatsCan, one in every four health-care workers in this country is a newcomer to Canada. More than a third of family physicians are immigrants; roughly the same proportions are seen in the fields of nursing, nursing aides and other related occupations.

Then there are the temporary workers in agriculture, urgently needed this spring when planting season was under way across Canada. Universities are already worrying about what will happen if they lose international students, whose high tuition costs account for about half of universities’ tuition revenue by some estimates.

Mendicino believes that all these facts are going to help make the case for immigration, once it’s safe to open the borders again. “Immigration has been a lifeline during the pandemic by safeguarding our food supply, recruiting additional support for our essential services on the front lines of our hospitals,” he says.

But here’s the blunt question: how do you get Canadians feeling good about opening up borders when they’re still extremely cautious about what’s going in and out of their own front doors? Two months of isolationism is going to be a hard habit to break, especially when it comes to envisioning thousands once again at Canada’s gates.

“We’ve adapted our immigration processes so that everyone is screened at the border, not only immigrants but returning Canadians too,” Mendicino says.

This still relatively new immigration minister refuses to be drawn into any questions about whether his job is tougher now or how he’s going to modify his arguments in favour of immigration in a world that has been locked down for two months.

“I have faith that Canadians believe in immigration,” he says. “That’s because they relate to it. It’s part of who we are. At its core, immigration is about people coming together to build a stronger country, which is what we’ve seen throughout our history, throughout this pandemic and, I’m confident, what we will see in the future.”

As with everything around this pandemic, though, no one knows whether this experience will make Canada more closed, or more aware of how much this country is connected to the world. Attitudes to immigration — and Mendicino — will be at the centre of that debate.

Source: Susan Delacourt: COVID-19 has made Canada wary of newcomers. So how can Ottawa make the case for the immigrants we so desperately need?

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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