An Ottawa-Ontario turf war hobbled efforts to bring in skilled workers. Here’s what ended it

Of interest:

Around the world, ideology drives the politics of immigration by pushing people apart.

Across Canada, geography drives a deeper wedge between rival governments in Ottawa and at Queen’s Park.

Over the past decade, an undeclared turf war has hobbled Ontario’s attempt to recruit skilled workers. The federal government refused to give Canada’s biggest province a significant say in who came here.

Now, Ontario is finally getting a bigger role in selecting skilled immigrants. And Ottawa has belatedly declared peace in our time.

Just in time.

This month, a federal Liberal cabinet minister and his Progressive Conservative counterpart in Ontario agreed to double the skilled immigrants selected by the province for rapid resettlement, matching workers with work. By 2025, Ontario will get to select 18,000 skilled workers, primarily in the health-care, construction and hi-tech fields ― up from 9,000 in 2021 and just 1,000 a decade ago.

How did it happen?

The rise of inflation, the risk of recession, and the recurrence of labour shortages forced Canada’s two biggest governments, at Queen’s Park and on Parliament Hill, to work together after years of talking past each other.

But it’s not just the economic environment. The political climate has also brought the rival governments together to collaborate.

Two erstwhile enemies, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Premier Doug Ford, now meet almost monthly to cut cheques and cut ribbons for new factory investments. Against that backdrop of bonhomie, Monte McNaughton, one of Ontario’s most politically astute cabinet ministers, went one step further to bridge the partisan divide with his federal counterpart.

As the province’s minister of labour, McNaughton has long been a linchpin of Ford’s outreach strategy with union leaders. But he also has special responsibility for immigration and training, so when Sean Fraser was sworn in as the federal minister two years ago, McNaughton quickly texted an old pal to get his phone number.

That pal was Katie Telford, the PM’s chief of staff, with whom McNaughton has kept in touch since they served together as teenage pages in the legislature. Armed with Fraser’s number, McNaughton disarmed the new Liberal minister by dropping Telford’s name ― proof that he could work across ideological and geographical lines.

“I got his number from Katie and got ahold of him,” McNaughton told me this week. “I said to him, ‘This is not about politics whatsoever. We have a serious challenge in terms of the labour shortage … so let’s grow the numbers and actually do something that is going to make a meaningful difference on the ground.’”

They’ve been talking and texting ever since ― without political aides, without bureaucratic advisers, just the two of them. They started far apart, because the inherited challenge wasn’t just about bipartisanship but bilateralism.

Historically, the federal government was accustomed to unilateral action while Ontario contented itself with inaction. By contrast, Quebec had led the way decades ago, winning shared jurisdiction on immigration on the strength of its special French-language needs; meanwhile, Western provinces had quietly persuaded Ottawa to let them select thousands of immigrants to meet local labour market needs amid growing economies.

Ontario had never bothered to ask in the past. As the jobs went West, so did the talent.

A decade ago, seven out of 10 immigrants to Western provinces were in the “economic” class, compared to barely half of those coming to Ontario. By the time Queen’s Park woke up to that reality, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives in Ottawa were unwilling to help.

“We’re not interested in devolving services to the junior level of government,” then-immigration minister Jason Kenney told me at the time.

Now, with the roles reversed ― there’s a federal Liberal minister in Ottawa, while his Ontario counterpart is a PC ― the roadblocks have been removed and a back channel reopened.

“I give full credit to Fraser,” McNaughton said in our interview. “We were more desperate than other provinces from a labour shortage perspective. We were receiving, as a percentage, less (skilled nominees) than any other province in the country.”

For his part, Fraser says he never saw it as a turf battle. The economic stakes are too high for political grudges or bureaucratic games.

A mismatched labour market “is one of the challenges that keeps me up at night,” Fraser told me at a recent Democracy Forum at Toronto Metropolitan University (where he also talked about crossing party lines to get advice from ex-PM Brian Mulroney).

If workers end up in the wrong regions for the wrong jobs, while skilled jobs are going begging in businesses elsewhere, all Canadians will pay the price of a delayed recovery and missed opportunity, he argued.

“I think this was a unique opportunity for us to increase (Ontario’s) provincial nominee program levels,” Fraser said at the TMU event I co-hosted last week, adding coyly: “Before too long we’re going to show up in Ontario.”

Days later, both ministers did indeed show up in Toronto to announce their landmark agreement. Ontario’s biggest employers promptly hailed the deal as an economic breakthrough that ruptures previous roadblocks.

Despite the doubling of the program, the new numbers are still small and the progress largely symbolic. But it is a strategic first step.

Immigration always has the potential to drive people apart. Consider the continuing tumult in the U.S. and U.K.

Yet two Canadian cabinet ministers quietly came together, in a bipartisan and bilateral way. They tried to work it out, so that the economics would turn out better for workers and workplaces alike.

Small numbers, yes. But no small feat.

Source: An Ottawa-Ontario turf war hobbled efforts to bring in skilled workers. Here’s what ended it

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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