Canada needed them; The sacrifices of past generations of immigrants helped build this country -- but many now arrive who contribute little
Published in the Ottawa Citizen, August 4, 2010
The Kopalas recently held their fourth family reunion in a little more than 30 years. A hundred-plus kith and kin from across Canada assembled at a holiday camp near Bonnyville, the now prosperous settlement in northeastern Alberta where a burgeoning oil industry is transforming the forests, rolling hills, pasture and farmland that have, in years past, sustained aboriginal tribes, French and English settlers and European immigrants.
Those like my grandparents, Michael and Aniela Kopala from Poland, were part of the final wave of Eastern European immigration that Clifford Sifton, Sir Wilfrid Laurier's minister of the interior from 1896 to 1905, initiated in order to develop western Canada. Disregarding objections that these immigrants couldn't speak English or French, Sifton knew they had the skills and the work ethic that Canada most needed at that time: the ability and willingness to undergo the privations and hardships of turning rock and mosquito-infested bush into productive farmland.
"I think a stalwart peasant ... born on the soil, whose forefathers have been farmers for 10 generations, with a stout wife and a half-dozen children is good quality," he famously insisted. Arriving in 1928, the Kopalas, with their 10 children, were tailor-made to earn their citizenship, Sifton-style, by sweat-equity.
Sifton's approach to immigration spoke to the synergistic National Policy devised by Canada's first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald. It melded major infrastructure undertakings with long-term economic development and the human capital necessary to bring it to fruition. In this case, it was a land policy and transcontinental railways to facilitate western settlement which, in turn, would furnish Eastern Canada with commodities such as wheat grown by newly arrived immigrant farmers. It was win-win thinking that worked and everyone benefited. Between 1891 and 1914, more than three million people arrived. By the end of the First World War, Canada was the biggest exporter of wheat in the world.
Yet, despite superior planning, immigrants suffered. Along with the extremes of climate and nonexistent housing, the Kopalas would lose Michael during their first winter in Canada. Aniela, with neither husband nor father for her four children and six step-children in a strange land, could, nonetheless, count on the older sons for hunting, fishing and building a cabin on their newly acquired homestead.
Families like the Kopalas made other sacrifices, too. Like all Canada's early immigrants, they left extended family behind, family they might never phone, e-mail or see again. Later, after one of the sisters returned to Poland, the whole family sponsored her return to Canada.
Like so many immigrants before and since, the Kopalas came to Canada for one reason only: the benefit of the children. Canada welcomed them and did not shirk from providing them with the best social infrastructure possible under the circumstances. For the Kopalas, in the 1930s, this meant a one-room school where some would make it to Grade 8 and learn rudimentary English.
For all their sacrifices and absence of entitlements, immigrants arriving then and well into the 1970s were richly rewarded. Bringing their skills, their spouses and their children, these immigrants who, today, would be called "economic class" immigrants could, within 10 years, expect to be paying sufficient taxes to cover the costs of the social services they use.
The 1976 Immigration Act changed all that. As Charles M. Campbell, a one-time member of the Immigration Appeal Board states in Betrayal and Deceit: The Politics of Canadian Immigration, this "legislation drastically reduced the admission standards for immigrants."
Testifying before the House of Commons standing committee on labour, employment and immigration in 1990, Don DeVoretz, a specialist in immigration economics at Simon Fraser University, related how "tax performance, use of public services and savings behaviours are all predicated on rapidly rising immigrant income after their arrival. We are now finding just the opposite. Years of residence in Canada are coupled with a decline in relative earnings for this recent immigrant vintage." Why? Those who are highly trained do very well, but the "less trained immigrants are falling further behind similarly trained Canadians with each year in residence."
And who are these "less trained immigrants"?
"Family class" immigrants, at 26 per cent of Canada's 2009 intake, comprise the increasingly large group of immigrants who are in Canada for no reason other than they are someone's relative.
In 2009 also, "economic class" immigrants made up 60.9 per cent of Canada's intake. To break that down further, 16 per cent of immigrants came as "skilled workers" (principal applicants fully selected under the points system), while their spouses and children who have automatic entry made up a further 22 per cent. Also under the economic class of immigrants are those who arrived as "investors," "provincial nominees" and "live-in caregivers" and their families, making up 20 per cent of immigrants.
Family class immigrants meet no selection or other criteria and gain entry only by being sponsored. These parents, grandparents, common-law partners and spouses, in turn, are allowed to sponsor yet more family class relatives, a chain of sponsorship which is most usually conducted through the parents, who can then bring with them their unmarried children who, when they are old enough, can marry spouses from their country of origin, after which the spouses can sponsor their parents, etc.
Often lacking language and job skills, this group of immigrants doesn't do very well in Canada. Sponsorships defray some of their costs but inevitably they access the full range of Canada's generous social services.
Studies as recent as 2005 demonstrate how not only has the economic performance of less-trained newcomers been particularly weak, but, in recent decades, the earnings of highly qualified new arrivals have also fallen well behind those of Canadian-born workers. According to a study by Herb Grubel, professor emeritus at Simon Fraser University, annual costs incurred as a result of health, education, welfare and other expenditures are in the tens of billions of dollars. That is a great deal of money to spend on those who may never pay taxes or serve in our armed forces, but who may qualify for welfare and social security benefits while competing for doctors, hospital beds and seniors' facilities with veterans who have.
Those who hold family reunions understand the deep sense of validation, trust and belonging they inspire. For the Kopalas on July 17, the third-youngest and last living survivor of those who arrived in 1928 gave the closing speech. "I am proud of all my brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews," my 88-year-old Auntie Matilda said. Indeed, every member of the family from 1928 has become contributing members of Canadian society including, for some, in the war effort.
Those who hold family reunions also know better than most that strong families are a country's best social program. Yet, when family class immigration becomes a net burden on the social programs so carefully built by immigrant generations past, the system is imperilled for everyone.
This is more than insult added to the injury done by legislation and court rulings that since 1976 are undermining Canada's taxpayer base, social cohesion and public safety. It dishonours the legislators who implemented strategic immigration policies that once served the national interest. It also dishonours the vast majority of immigrants who -- before and after 1976 -- made personal sacrifices to enjoy the privilege of becoming Canadian citizens.
Margret Kopala chairs the soon-to-be-launched Centre for Immigration Policy Reform. Her Ukrainian great-grandparents arrived in Canada in 1895 and her Polish grandparents arrived in 1928.
• Photo: Library and Archives Canada. / Posters encouraged immigrants to move to the Prairies from 1896 to 1914. Laurier's interior minister knew Canada needed people who could turn rock and mosquito-infested bush into productive farmland.
• Photo: The Kopala family before they left Poland in 1928.