press and opinions

Rethinking Immigration

  • / Sep 11, 2012 / by Tom Denton /
  • Luncheon Speech to Association of Former

    Members of the Manitoba Legislative Assembly


    We are living in the Chicken Little, Henny Penny era. The sky is falling.  One only had to read the [Winnipeg] Free Press on the weekend to note once again the threat of global warming and the extremes of weather; potential environmental disaster and the sustainability of the human race; the impending collapse of Greece and maybe a chain reaction through Spain and Portugal leading to the end of the Euro; the planet’s greatest economy, America, anticipating financial crisis (not to mention political crisis); the chaos of the Middle East extending now from Pakistan to Egypt across the Muslim world – and gaining momentum; problems in selling Manitoba’s electricity at a time when our markets may not need it; lack of money in this city for basic infrastructure and lots of other things – and the list goes on. It’s enough to make even an optimist want to tell the king that the sky is falling.  And it may be! The ancient Mayan calendar apparently ends in December.


    In times like these it seems harder to think clearly and plan strategically.  Yet that is what I am going to ask you to do for the next few minutes.  Talking about Canada’s immigration policy in the midst of impending doom may seem a bit like rearranging the deck chairs on the Empress of Ireland, but I suggest this is the right time to begin to position Canada strategically in a tumultuous world.


    Immigration policy is always pragmatic according to the tenets of the time. Who do we let in and who do we keep out. Lord Selkirk had a pragmatic agenda[1]. So did MacDonald and Laurier, Filmon and Doer. So do Harper and Selinger.  A review of the circumstances underlying our immigration from early days to now would in itself make a fascinating study. But that is not my theme today.  Let’s cut more directly to the chase.




    At the start of the 20th Century, there were 1.6 billion people on the planet.  When the century ended there were 6.1 billion.  Population doubled in the forty years from 1960 to 2000, from 3 billion to 6 billion. Today it’s 7 billion. It will peak sometime in the next four decades at 9-to-11 billion, and then begin to decline rapidly.


    The world’s people are still increasing at the rate of 1.1 percent each year, mainly in poorer countries. That’s the equivalent of a city of more than one million people each week.  Life expectancy is increasing.  Fifty year’s ago the world average was 46 years; today it’s passing 64.  By 2050, one third of Canada’s population will be over 65.


    People are migrating into cities.  At the beginning of the 20th Century the majority of the world’s population lived in rural areas and small centres. Now the majority lives in cities. Fifty years ago there were eight cities in the world with a population of 5 million or more; today there are about 40.


    The demographic trends are not affecting all countries in the same way.  The developed states are further along the path to population stabilization, and then decline.  In 2050 Italy will have fewer people than it had in 1950, and population decline will be a common phenomenon in the European Union.  The most significant demographic event in the past 2000 years has not been plagues or wars; it was the introduction of the birth control pill in 1960.  At current birth rates – below the population replacement rate of 2.1 live births per female -- in 100 years European races will be what I call “effectively extinct”. Canada’s birth rate sits at about 1.5; Italy at 1.1.


    The great immigrant-receiving nation, the United States, is growing faster than Canada. It brings in about one million immigrants a year and has a birth rate of 2.1.  It will continue to grow, and by 2050 will have nearly 400 million people. By then it will have increased its size lead on Canada by almost another 100 million people. We are only projected to grow to 42 million. Will the US simply take us over? Pakistan, which in 1950 had 50 million, by 2050 will also have 400 million people. Africa is beset by AIDS, but despite this plague that in some states is affecting 25% of the population - Africa will continue to grow and by 2050 will have more people than Europe. Younger Canadians today will live through dramatically changing times.


    In the world’s developed states the competition for migrant workers will become extreme.  The challenge will be the maintenance of the workforce in the face of declining birthrates and the aging of the population. In the immigrant-receiving countries like Canada, the US and Australia, maintaining the workforce through immigration is an achievable target.  Maintaining the current ratio of workers to those over 65 (retirees), however, is an impossibility.  The baby boomers are aging too quickly, and immigrants age at the same rate as everyone else. “Freedom 55" is a pipedream from the ‘eighties and in future many will need to work into their seventies.


    In the midst of this demographic turmoil, one fact usually goes unnoticed. Despite all the human migration about which we hear so much, about millions of immigrants, about the vast movements of refugees and migrant workers, only three percent of the world’s population lives outside the borders of the country where it was born. That’s 200 million people, but it’s still only three percent. People may migrate within the borders of their homeland, from villages to cities, but they are still “at home” in the land of their birth. The ties of home are little understood or seldom studied, but they remain a reality that has major implications for immigration policy – and this human homing propensity has been largely ignored.


    A curious fact about Canada is that almost nine percent – 2.9 million Canadians – live abroad.  Why is that? I thought we were the most wonderful country in the planet. Maybe many have returned “home”.


    Another fact that seems to be overlooked in the congestion of the world’s huge cities is the amount of space we still have. Were Manitoba to have the same population density as Texas, it would have over 20 million people [instead of 1.2 million]. Just the bottom half of Manitoba is bigger than Poland with 38.5 million people.  Fly over Canada and what do you see?  Space! -Space everywhere and few people. The timidity, with which we have approached immigration since 1913, has squandered our opportunity for greatness and, despite all our geography, has left us a minor player on the world’s stage. Is this the best we can do?




    Which brings me to immigration: have we got it right? Are the rules right and are the numbers admitted right? For as long as any of us can remember, Canada’s immigration policy has been described as a “labour market strategy”. It leans toward a preference for skilled workers and aims to match them to available jobs. Families get secondary acknowledgment, and the refugee stream comes third.


    The hue and cry one hears about the strictures and slow processes of the immigration system comes as much in consequence of the cap on total numbers admitted annually as upon the limited windows of immigration opportunity the policy has opened.  We let in only about 250,000 a year and the backlog of applicants builds. The public is not generally aware of this, and complains about the rules and their application when the focus of complaint ought to be upon the numbers.


    That demand for immigration visas exceeds supply should not be surprising in a country where one person in five is foreign born. The potential for a desire for family members to come to settle here is bound to be high.


    Why do you suppose people come to Canada? Is it because we are such a wonderful country – which of course we are?  Actually, no! There is an elephant in our immigration policy room – the huge reality that is there, but nobody admits its presence. The great majority of immigrants – estimated at higher than eighty percent – come to Canada because they are connected to somebody already here. I call it “relational immigration”.


    We require immigrants to qualify for entry in one of several silos – skilled workers, business class, provincial nominees, family class, refugees.  But the overarching reality that cuts across these silos, the elephant in the room, is that family migration and reunification in the broadest sense of “family” is what is driving the numbers. You might well wonder why we don’t admit this and use it to our advantage instead of straining to build and manage our silos – often with cruel results in human terms.


    National immigration numbers mask regional concerns that are beginning to be a focus for Provincial governments like ours. Since immigrants are targeting a few large centres and fueling the growth and prosperity of those leading places, the issues surrounding population decline will show up first in the outer reaches of the country even while the overall population total for Canada  grows in the short and mid term.


    Forty-five percent of the urban centres of Canada are actually in population decline. Without a more successful strategy for the regionalization of immigration than has happened so far, the economic and ultimately the political pressures that will arise because of significant population decline in some areas will become a national challenge. What happens to “prosperity” when populations are not sustained?


    Immigrants as a commodity


    Canada’s current immigration policy choices make easy sense. But are they superficial, or put another way, insufficiently profound?  If Canada needs workers and is going to need more in future, a strategy that favours skilled workers would seem to be a no-brainer.  And where there may be residual antipathy to immigration among some elements of the populace, a self-interest-based and fact-supported argument in favour of a labour market strategy, is compelling. We need them, so let’s get them.


    It is the essence of a “labour market” approach that people become a commodity, like raw materials or energy.  The history of nations is full of examples of the importation of workers for the purpose of facilitating some agricultural or industrial goal.  Temporary or migrant workers are the modern counterparts of the indentured workers or slaves of earlier eras.  Post-war economies in Western Europe were constructed and thrived on the importation of workers.


    It is a typical characteristic of labour-importing countries that the privileges of citizenship are withheld, whether in law or in the migrants lack of acceptance by the indigenous population. Strangers in a strange land, they can remain that way for generations. Canada’s approach has been remarkably different.  While the labour market rationalization for immigration has been preached for most of the post-war period, once arrived the newcomers are immediately considered permanent residents and on the road to qualifying for full citizenship in three years. Equally remarkable but more controversial has been Canada’s focus for many years on a policy of “multiculturalism”. The policy has its detractors, but for a country with an incredibly diverse population– far more so than any western European country deals with – it can also be seen as a brilliant strategy that has fostered civil peace and general harmony.


    A recent cloud on this horizon has been the need to bring in increasing numbers of temporary foreign workers to meet the demand, especially seasonal demand. There are now as many foreign workers here as the number of immigrants we let in each year. Are we importing a solution or a problem?  Are we missing an opportunity?


    Canada also invests significant sums to aid in the successful resettlement of its newcomers. In the light of these three commitments – to citizenship, to multiculturalism and to resettlement – I suggest to you that the labour market approach to immigration seems shallow, almost apologetic as though we are embarrassed by the nation-building dynamics that are really at work.


    Why do we trumpet the “skilled worker” mantra that plays to shallow thinking while avoiding the grander nation building phrases that could resonate with an entire people?  Is it because we really haven’t grasped the larger vision, or is it because the skilled worker argument is more easily sold?  Selling Canadians on immigrants as a commodity may be facile, but it is shallow.  Canada actually plays a better game than it talks.


    Everyone has value in any economy


    The thin fabric of the skilled worker emphasis is rendered threadbare by the troubles it is encountering. Everyone has heard about skilled immigrants who are underemployed in terms of their credentials, or who haven’t been able to get their credentials recognized, or who feel they were misled about job opportunities that are non-existent when they arrive.  Our sales pitch appears to exceed our ability to deliver.  We bemoan the “PhD” who drives a taxi, the information technologist who delivers pizza, or the professional engineer who operates a forklift. We calculate the loss to our economy of their so-called “underemployment”.  We forget in all this hand-wringing that there was a job for a cab driver, a pizza delivery person, or a forklift operator.  Our crude one-size-fits-all overseas selection criteria with its (especially more recently)elitist predisposition is and will always be incapable of making all the matches that a complex economy, spread across 7,000 kilometers and with 34 million moving parts requires. Our skilled worker selection process needs to be revised – away from its emphasis on higher education for its own sake – and adapted to the job vacancy realities on the ground.  Provincial Nominee selection processes can make a contribution to achieving this because they are closer to the action.


    While these debates rage and critical fingers are pointed at selection criteria or the people that administer these or at the bodies that regulate trades and professions, and decide who gets in - an important point is being missed. Ranking Canadians, new or native born, by annual income can lead to egregious errors.  Every worker in a complex economic system such as Canada’s is of value, and part of the functioning of the system – irrespective of the amount he or she gets paid.  While it is interesting and even useful to study wage levels for a host of evaluative and policy reasons, when it comes to a nation building agenda, these techniques may be more harmful than useful.  They may lead to the kind of stereotyping that labels lower wage earners as “inferior”, and to the kind of exclusionary practices that beset and inhibit the in-migration of families.


    It strikes me that the skilled worker focus is essentially a short term and maybe short-sighted one, for the years roll on quickly, the worker ages, retires and dies, and the succeeding generations – the family - take his or her place sooner than we might care to admit.   In the longer sweep of the life of the nation the contribution of the immigrant worker’s family can have far greater significance than the transitory skills initially brought along in one’s arrival baggage.


    The relative importance of family immigration


    Canada’s immigration policy acknowledges the importance of family immigration. But in current practice it is assigned relativelyless importance than that given to skilled workers.  The total annual immigration target is subdivided, with sixty percent being given to the “Independent Class” (principally skilled workers), and forty percent to the “humanitarian” categories (Family Class and Refugees).  Just as the overall annual immigration total is a limiting factor not generally understood by the Canadian public, so also the sub-quotas assigned to the various immigration categories limit the intake potential, constricting for example the number of family reunification visas. This is not generally known.  People still think that immigrants can sponsor in their relatives – and they can’t unless they are the grandparents, parents, spouse or kids.


    Canada’s current immigration choices and the numerical limits placed annually on family reunification cases, fail to acknowledge or to provide an adequate response mechanism for the demand.  I see that demand daily. In the past year and a half I have personally turned down the sponsorship of more than 6,000 refugees who are family members of people living here in Winnipeg, because current rules will not permit it.


    There are those who maintain that family class immigration deserves its relatively lesser importance, that “unproductive” family members can be a drain on the system (particularly if they are aged), and that in an inevitable competition for scarce places on the annual intake roster it is better to favour the skilled workers.


    Nibbling away at this thesis are cost-of-separation arguments like foreign transfer payments, sent abroad for family support, or child care arguments suggesting that parents or grandparents if here would allow both parents to go out to work. Then there are the far bigger arguments having to do with the stress and human misery associated with family separation, the destruction of family ties, the impact on children – and the “cost” of all this to individuals, community and nation.


    There are still other arguments that are both ethical and practical.  I come back to my “immigrant-as-commodity” point.  If workers are primarily an adjunct to the machine they operate then there would be some who might have little interest in their general happiness so long as they could perform their assigned task. A simplistic immigration focus on skilled workers for job vacancies would be like that.


    There would be other employers that would see an employee’s mental and physical well-being as both a practical concern in terms of retention, productivity, and creativity - and as an ethical obligation. A nation-building immigration policy would be like that.


    It can therefore be argued that a Canadian immigration policy that favours a banal get-the-workers-we-need approach over one that acknowledges the importance of family reunification in both a family and a national context is simply not ethical. In Winnipeg, it is also not practical. People here know instinctively that the extended ties of family are a community strength, and that this will be as true for the newcomers as for the natives.  And everyone contributes to a successfully functioning economy – consumers as well as producers.


    Toward a practical and an ethical immigration policy


    What then might a practical and an ethical immigration policy look like? In the first place the numbers admitted annually will have to be much larger. Irrespective of the weighing of priorities as between the various immigration classes, if the numbers admitted are too small there is little point in arguing over the ranking because nothing will work humanely or even begin to be adequate in the face of demand. The Prime Minister should be listening more closely to the demographers, and pushing the annual intake targets quickly toward an annual admissions goal in the 4-500,000 range.  It’s been sitting at 250,000 a year for way too long.


    (Last January, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney was quoted as saying that Canada needed three times as many immigrants a year as it was getting, presumably to match both demand and need.  But he went on to say that Canadians would never accept immigrants in these numbers.  Is he right?)


    In the second place, priority should be given to family reunification, broadly defined. The current narrow definition applying to Family Class immigration needs to be broadened in the face of global realities about how other cultures view “family”, particularly in the so-called “non-traditional” immigrant source countries that now and in the future will be supplying most of Canada’s immigrants.


    This represents a shift away from the current priority given to skilled workers, but within a larger annual gross number of admissions, the actual number of skilled workers admitted would not have to be any less than now.


    Emphasizing family reunification as a priority value would, in taking the longer view of nation building, be both practical and ethical:


    -practical in its acceptance of persons who are most easily resettled (while relieving the current noisome pressure on both the system and Members of Parliament);

    -practical also as a necessary device for the regionalization of immigration and settlement in smaller centres;

    -and ethical, both as an endorsement of family values, and as the triumph of compassion over the current strategy’s predisposition to systemic cruelty in the way families are getting treated and kept separated.


    Canada in its early years, even before the confederation of 1867, worried more about populating the vast reaches of British North America than about matching skill sets with needs. Scottish crofters, dispossessed of their lands, came here 200 years ago and started building a city.  Similar stories happened right across this land. In the passage of time a nation was built.


    The same strategy has relevance today.  Canada would benefit from a greater generosity of spirit than it now displays, especially toward its families. We could rename our immigration policy, getting rid of the shallow-sounding “labour market strategy” that has been with us for sixty years and instead start talking about a “nation building strategy’.  Now that has resonance!


    We could build this country to 100 million people as Laurier and Sifton planned 100 years ago. That would give us a far more strategic position and role in this tumultuous world – whether or not the sky is falling.


    It is a matter of choice.

    [1] 2012 marks the 200th anniversary of the arrival of the founding Selkirk Settlers to what is now Manitoba.