Globe Editorial: Canada’s immigration plan should involve more than just big numbers

Good editorial, and a sign of a more serious discussion on appropriate levels of immigration and the associated impacts and costs.

A change from the March 2021 Globe event promoted increased immigration and the government’s approach. That in turn prompted my riposte, Increasing immigration to boost population? Not so fast.

As I and others have argued, we need to take these externalities into account in designing and implementation immigration policies and programs, which by their very nature, require joint federal provincial responses:

The word “goal” appears seven times in the Immigration department’s latest annual report to Parliament, a document that purportedly lays out the Liberal government’s vision of how to bring a historic number of permanent residents to Canada in the next three years.

The plan spells out how many newcomers are projected to arrive through 2025, growing to a record annual intake of 500,000 people. And it calls those targets a goal.

They are not; those quotas are simply a means to an end. Left unasked, much less answered, is the question: What is Canada’s immigration policy trying to achieve?

This is, emphatically, not an argument against immigration. Successive waves of newcomers have made Canada a better and richer country. But the Liberals need to spell out what they are aiming to achieve with their rapid increase in immigration, particularly as Canada grapples with housing shortages and a strained health care system.

The Trudeau government, like its predecessors, leans heavily on platitudes – diversity and multiculturalism are good! – and blandishments about immigration supporting population growth and economic prosperity.

Those sentiments (and they are nothing more than that) do not answer the question of what should be the goal of Canadian immigration policy. Clearly there is a large role for compassion, in the admission of refugees, other humanitarian migrants and in the family reunification stream.

But nearly three-fifths of the 1.45-million set to arrive by 2025 are economic migrants. In sheer numbers, that is a record intake. And as a proportion of the population, the 1.45-million total rivals the massive inflows of the 1950s. The question of why becomes even more pressing.

The so-called immigration plan touches ever so briefly on the stated reason – economic prosperity – before pivoting back to platitudes, but it doesn’t define what that might mean.

Our view is straightforward: economic immigration should grow only to the extent that it accelerates growth in prosperity, namely Canada’s standard of living. It is not enough to simply point to population growth as a success. That mistakes arithmetic for a plan.

Neither is it enough to tout the obvious – that newcomers will add to the size of the economy. If the rate of real economic growth outstrips population growth, the standard of living rises. But the reverse is axiomatically true: living standards will fall if the population grows faster than the economy.

Higher productivity is the key. An immigration plan that helps fill critical labour gaps, which brings in newcomers with science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills, will enhance productivity. An immigration scheme that shunts skilled newcomers into menial work will not.

In theory, Canada’s current points-based approach for economic migrants, the comprehensive ranking system (CRS), could be a tool to better focus immigration on improving productivity.

But there are several problems with the design (and adherence) to the current system. For one, the definition of skilled labour is too broad, encompassing positions such as bakers or dental assistants, neither of which is key to Canada’s future prosperity.

The Liberal government is also shifting away from using the existing ranking system, creating greater ministerial latitude to admit workers in sectors where critical labour shortages are deemed to exist. Unsurprisingly, those shortages exist in lower-wage industries that cannot, or will not, pay higher salaries or otherwise adapt to labour scarcity.

The shift from selecting high-skills immigrants to filling lower-wage labour gaps is a mistake that amplifies the distortions wrought by expanding the temporary foreign workers program. In both cases, Canadian immigration policy is pulling in the wrong direction, by subsidizing low-wage employers and dampening the pressure to innovate.

A better approach would be to focus the CRS on areas such as artificial intelligence, green technologies and STEM more generally. Set an explicit goal that the earnings of economic immigrants should outstrip the national average, and then ensure there are reliable data on how they fare in the job market. Immigration levels could then be adjusted down, or up, depending on whether those benchmarks are being met.

Ottawa would then have a metric for the success of its economic immigration policy – and, for the first time, a plan.

Source: Canada’s immigration plan should involve more than just big numbers

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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