press and opinions

Social and Practical Consequences

  • / Mar 14, 2013 / by Tom Denton /
  • National Metropolis Conference, Ottawa, March 14-16, 2013

    Conference theme: Building an Integrated Society

    In this brief time I will confine my remarks to the small slice of Canada’s migration policy that I know best: the private sponsoring of refugees. However, this small slice reveals a lot about the larger pie, and I’ll mention that.

    The Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program – a long moniker I shall shorten to the “PSR program” -- should be a source of pride for Canadians. It began as we know it today in 1979, it is unique, and successive government’s have tended and sustained it, allowing Canadians to express their generosity through it.

    The numbers of these immigrants admitted annually have varied widely. In year one (1979) the number was nearly 14,000 rising the following year by fifty percent to over 21,000 This was the height of the “boat people” era. Similar big numbers happened again in the four year from 1988 to 1992 as the Cold War drew to an end and the Yugoslavia fracturing began. The average annual intake in those years was well over 17,000.

    Then the Chretien – Martin years arrived and the average number of PSRs admitted for those twelve years collapsed to 2,920. The first three Harper years were marginally higher by 16 percent.  Then a renewed emphasis was placed upon the program and new and higher PSR targets were announced. The average number of PSR arrivals for the past four years is almost 5000 and the goal in 2013 will be about 6000.

    As Robbie Burns famously said, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley”.  Last year, after the government‘s noble goal was set at almost 6,000, only 4212 got here.  Critics of Mr. Harper and Mr. Kenney have had a field day with this.  Politics is of course a blood sport. The criticism isn’t fair.

    I have probably a better window on what is happening with PSR processing than anyone outside of government because of the large number of open PSR files I manage.

    The plain truth is that the fates conspired against Minister Kenney and his department with a series of unforeseen events, large and small, to frustrate their PSR goal for 2012.  In the interests of time I won’t list them here but I’d be happy to talk about them outside of these constraints. I’ll wager they’ll make their goal in 2013.

    Instead of talking about performance I’d rather talk about the goal.  Yes, the Conservative’s PSR goal is double what performance achieved in the twelve Liberal years that preceded them and that’s commendable. But why only 6,000?

    Again the answer is apparently simple. That’s the size of the PSR slice of the annual immigration pie which only lets in about 250,000 immigrants a year.  Make the PSR slice larger and some other slice would have to be smaller.  That’s the logic.

    But there is demand for every slice of this pie to be larger, whether it be the slice for parents and grandparents, for the nuclear family class (I think we should rename it as such), for skilled workers, for provincial nominees – you name it.  Great grandmother’s pie plate is only so big. The social and practical implications of this are enormous and profound.

    I say “great grandmother’s” deliberately. This year 2013 marks the 100th anniversary of 1913, the year Canada let in more immigrants than in any other year of its history – 400,000, at a time when our population was something over 8 million. That was the last era and the last year Canada had governments with a grand vision of what we might become.  Wilfred Laurier’s goal as expressed in 1910 was a nation of 100 million by the year 2000. We only achieved a third of that.

    Since 1913 we have of course had two World Wars, the Depression, recessions – and 100 years of no vision. We are like a careful shopkeeper afraid to expand the business beyond what we care to manage - despite an explosion of opportunity around us. Worse, we are a shopkeeper that has ignored his own mortality and keeps going like there’s no tomorrow.

    Canada’s mortality is its demography. I’ve known for 16 years that our demographers think we need to move to 400-500,000 immigrants a year to cushion the demographic meltdown that awaits us by mid century.  In the face of this, and forgetting about any greater vision for Canada like Laurier had, current limited immigration numbers are plainly unwise if not dangerous.  But that is a theme for another day.

    Shifting metaphors, the pot is boiling but we keep the lid on.  Let’s look in more detail at the PSR program and recent changes that affect it.

    Of high visibility have been the cuts to the Interim Federal Health Program, a wise program in place since the late ‘fifties.  Initially the cuts affected all refugees – Government Assisted, Privately Sponsored and refugee claimants. Mr. Kenney was forced to backtrack on the Government Assisted because that was plainly ill-considered.

     But the cuts to the other two categories have continued: mean spirited in my view; unwise in the opinion of the medical profession and others - and not just [only] in the opinion of those caring Canadians who sponsor and defend refugees.

    When it comes to PSRs, however, I still have hope that Mr. Kenney will reestablish the IFH benefit. It is already there for his newly-announced Visa Office Referred program which relies on the cooperation of the private sponsoring sector.  Canada has always taken pride in its unique program for private sponsoring of refugees, so it seems strange to stick a knife in its ribs as Mr. Kenney has done by cutting off the IFH benefits.

    My agency, Hospitality House, in collaboration with the Anglican Diocese of Rupert’s Land has launched a suit against Ottawa for specific performance of their IFH commitments as found in the sponsorship agreements that underlie the majority of PSR arrivals in Canada.  The suit was heard in the Federal Court in early February and we are awaiting the judgment.

    Of prime concern to those who would sponsor refugees under the PSR program is the current capping of new cases.  The backlog of persons so sponsored had swelled to about 34,000 by the start of 2012, so with an annual admittance target of 6000, something had to be done.

    The Sponsorship Agreement Holders of Canada were required to cut their numbers of new submissions while overseas processing catches up.  This can be seen as a reasonable restriction, given the parameters.  These restrictions are likely to continue in extreme form for a couple more years, and in a more moderate way in the years thereafter so that the backlog problem doesn’t build again.

    As an example of the impact, my agency initiated sponsorships for 1,940 refugees in 2011, and for only two in 2012.

    We hear a lot about “donor fatigue” in various spheres, and when it comes to the PSR program, the phrase has been used to explain the lean years when there were so few PSR arrivals in Canada. More recently, the decline in strength amongst the mainline Christian religious denominations is seen as exacerbating the “fatigue”.  I am here to tell you that this is nonsense.

    The reality is that probably less than five percent of the PSR cases submitted come from groups where there is no Canadian family link to the refugee being named for sponsoring.

    At least ninety-five percent of refugees sponsored are coming here to join members of their family who came before them, and who are often distraught with worry for the folk they left behind in the same refugee circumstances they escaped.  There is no cessation of that demand. There is no “donor fatigue”.  There are only government restrictions.  This was why there were so few PSR arrivals in the Chretien-Martin years and why the numbers, although better, are still what they are today.

    In a very real sense the PSR program is a “family reunification” program because there is no other way under Canadian immigration law to achieve this.  I see the need and the reality literally every day in my office. I hear the stories and I see the tears as I explain endlessly that there is no means or capacity in the system to solve their problem.

    I began to turn people down at the beginning of February, 2011, when I already had enough PSR cases to handle in the face of the impending restrictions. Since that time I have kept a rough count of the number of refugees I have been forced NOT to sponsor because of the restrictions.  Without one word of exaggeration that number is 10,000 in two years, and the requests – and my regretful refusals – continue every working day.  It’s the hardest thing I do.

    That’s just in one small office. Can you imagine the potential demand across Canada from this one program alone? I have long figured that for every refugee we land here, be they Government Assisted, Privately Sponsored or refugee claimant, you can expect they will want to bring in three family members later. This is a fundamental reality, a huge social and practical consequence of our immigration policy generally and the PSR program in particular, whether we tinker with the numbers or the health benefits, or not.

    I have long been intrigued by what I call “relational migration”.  Many years ago at a conference such as this I heard a senior statistician from Statistics Canada say that more than eighty percent of immigrants – across all categories of immigration – are related to someone already here.

    We force immigrants to qualify in various silos, but a fundamental driver of immigration - part or all of the reason why people want to come here - is that they are related to somebody already here. We may or may not be the greatest country on the planet; we most certainly do have much to offer; but one fundamental reason for the demand to come here is a family relationship.  I see this clearly in the PSR program.

    It seems to me that 100 years of immigration policy has tended to see this propensity to relational migration as a weakness and a problem. It may not be delivering with immediacy the type of human capital (or human fodder) we need to keep the machines running.  From the trenches where I work day-to-day, I see it as a strength, as the right way to build an integrated society - if one takes a longer view.

    If one sees immigration as a means for building the nation rather than as the importation of an expendable human commodity (that will retire or die in 30 years), then the focus will be on families and the strength of relational migration as the foundation stone it has always been, whether acknowledged or not.

    I see this so clearly in the work I have done for thirty years. I am a weekly witness to the huge joy of family reunification at the airport as PSRs arrive.  I see how their Canadian families give them an instant network that aids their resettlement. I hear how their kids thrive in school and go on to be educated, trained members of the work force.  But it takes a longer view.

    We have a double-barreled problem.  First, we have at best a nation-maintenance agenda rather than a nation building one: immigration numbers are too low to stave off trouble ahead, let alone express any vision for a greater Canada.  Second, we don’t exploit the potential in relational migration that is starring us in the face.

    It is not the recent changes but rather the lack of change, of vision, of imagination, in our migration policy that will have the greatest social and practical consequences for Canada in the years ahead.

    But it is still not too late to fix it.