Andrew Potter: Trudeau is risking our pro-immigration consensus

Indeed. Encouraging to see more articles focusses on the impact (my first article questioning the government’s approach and Canada’s ability to address these and other externalities dates from May 2021):

Justin Trudeau’s strong desire to push his unique brand of progressive cosmopolitanism onto audiences domestic and foreign has always stood uneasily beside his equally strong obsession with keeping the peace with Quebec, which is led by the increasingly nationalistic François Legault. Indeed, when these two goals have come in conflict, his tendency has been to either take Quebec’s side (such as the application of Bill 101 to companies under federal jurisdiction) or largely ignore it (Bill 21). But things are coming to a head now over immigration, and this is one area where it is hard not to think that Legault has a point. 

Last month, the federal government announced that Canada would be trying to bring in 500,000 immigrants a year by 2025, an almost 25 per cent increase over last year’s target. Thanks to current immigration levels, Canada’s population growth rate is already considerably higher than that of the U.S., the U.K., and Australia. As Statistics Canada reported this fall, immigrants currently make up almost a quarter of the population, the highest level since Confederation, and one of the highest levels in the world. 

Quebec seems to think things have gone just about far enough. The recent provincial election, which saw Legault’s CAQ re-elected in a landslide, was fought largely over questions of Quebec identity and the status of the French language, with the debate over appropriate levels of immigration serving as a flashpoint. The Liberals bid highest,  suggesting the province could accommodate 70,000 newcomers a year, while the PQ came in with a lowball pledge of a maximum of 35,000. The governing CAQ set the limit at 50,000, with Legault saying anything higher would be “suicidal” for the province. 

Given this all-party Quebec consensus around relatively low levels of immigration, it was surprising to see Trudeau assert in a year-end interview that Quebec has “all the tools” it needs to bring in as many as 112 000 immigrants a year, which would be its per-capita share of the 500,000 national target. In response, Legault’s immigration minister Christine Fréchette called Trudeau “insensitive” and said that Canada could bring in as many people as it likes but no more than 50,000 are coming to Quebec. 

The fact is, Quebec’s concerns over its ability to successfully integrate tens of thousands of newcomers are not frivolous, and it would be helpful if the federal government would recognize that these concerns apply as much in the rest of the country as they do in Quebec, if for different reasons. 

Ottawa’s rationale for ever-increasing levels of immigration is overwhelmingly economic. We are told that immigration leads to higher economic growth, will help alleviate labour shortages, and will mitigate the effects of an aging population. But even if this were true (the evidence is mixed on all of these), it is striking how little attention is paid to our capacity to successfully integrate a steadily increasing number of new Canadians. 

For starters, where are they all going to live? Housing in Canada is notoriously expensive, especially in the major cities where the majority of newcomers tend to settle. And we’re not adding anywhere close to the number of new houses that we need; as a recent Globe and Mail featureabout the challenges of immigration noted, the basic mismatch between the demand for housing and its supply is getting worse, not better. 

Then there is health care. The system, as anyone paying attention can see, is in a major crisis. There is a widespread shortage of nurses, and somewhere around six million Canadians can’t even find a family doctor. Ottawa will argue that the solution is to bring in more foreign-trained medical professionals, but the problems they have getting their credentials recognized in Canada are long-standing. 

And all of this assumes the prospective immigrants can even get into the country in the first place: The federal government is currently facing a surge of lawsuits over the backlog of 1.2 million unprocessed immigration applications, with some applicants waiting years for a decision. 

In short: We make people wait an unconscionable long time while we decide if we will admit them; once they are here we have no plan for providing them with affordable housing or accessible health care; and then we make it exceedingly difficult for them to practice the professions for which they are trained. And all of this comes at a time when the wave of right-wing populism that has swept across the West over the past half decade has made itself at home in Canada. 

It is easy to forget just how recent it was that Canadians became comfortable with high levels of immigration. When Brian Mulroney basically doubled Canada’s immigration targets overnight in the late 1980s, it sparked a substantial backlash, and was in part responsible for the rise of the Reform Party. The late 1980s and early 1990s saw a great deal of national anxiety over immigration, with many critics worried that growing numbers of “hyphenated Canadians” would lead to cultural balkanization and social disintegration. It was only at the end of the 1990s that popular opinion switched from being predominantly anti-immigration to generally in favour. 

Canada’s great multicultural experiment over the past quarter century is largely a success story, with a healthy majority of Canadians continuing to support current levels of immigration. Most of us probably have personal stories about how and why immigration has made our lives better, and, thankfully, there aren’t yet loud calls for less immigration. 

But it wasn’t always this way, and it is important to remember that the current consensus around immigration (and multiculturalism more generally) was a hard-won achievement. With what appears to be a single-minded push to get immigration levels up to half a million a year, with no plan for dealing with the increasing number of obstacles to successfully integrating them, one worries if the Liberals are taking that achievement for granted.

Source: Andrew Potter: Trudeau is risking our pro-immigration consensus

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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