A New National Policy for Immigration
Published in the Ottawa Citizen, May 7, 2012
Jason Kenney is arguably the most activist immigration minister since Clifford Sifton, the 19th century minister of the interior whose policies were instrumental in building this nation. While many of his policies are welcome correctives to a dysfunctional immigration system, the question is whether they will be as beneficial as Sifton's to the country as a whole.
Sifton's policies were rooted in John A. Macdonald's 1878 National Policy which included the creation of a national railway system and the imposition of external tariffs to protect Eastern Canadian manufacturing but it wasn't until 1897 with Sifton's appointment to Wilfred Laurier's cabinet that its third objective, opening Western Canada, became a reality. Between 1897 and 1913, 3 million hand-picked immigrants, mostly from eastern and central Europe, accepted the offer of free transportation, 160 acres of land, and the chance of a new life.
The use of external tariffs have been discredited but otherwise this approach served Canada well. By melding a major infrastructure undertaking - the railway - with long term economic development and the human capital necessary to bring it to fruition, western settlement provided eastern Canada with a market for its goods, while western farmers gained markets for their crops. Along with a stronger economy, it also also promoted national unity and addressed its overriding security concern at the time, namely encroachment by its southern neighbour.
Can we say the same about Kenney's policies?
At a time when many Canadians are unemployed, particularly in Ontario and Quebec, Kenney is admitting massive numbers of newcomers, some 462,000 in 2010 if you include temporary workers, along with 210,000 foreign students crowding into Canadian universities. Most settle in or around Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver where prime farmland is being turned into housing tracts, compromising not only Canada's food security but, along with condo construction, inflating the housing bubble to a dangerous degree.
Where Sifton's immigrants went straight to work, today only 18 percent of Canada's immigrants are fully assessed on the basis of their employment and language skills. The minister might talk about attracting employable immigrants, but in reality most of the remaining 82 percent are in Canada only because they are someone's relative. Lacking skills that would make them employable, they become net consumers of services costing as much as $23 billion a year in excess of what they pay in taxes.
Despite this, Kenney intends to increase the quota for parents and grandparents' admissions, at least in the short term, even though this will be extremely costly. Estimating from a recent study of health care costs for the elderly by David Dodge, the former Bank of Canada governor, each sponsorship of a relative aged 65 or more will cost taxpayers about $192,000 over the senior immigrant's expected life-span of 20 years. If Kenney admits all 165,000 in the current backlog, health care costs will increase by a total of $31.8 billion or $1.6 billion per year.
And Canada's workforce needs? Stimulating a nation's productive capacity by piling a large labour force onto a large resource sector might make sense if carefully planned. That's essentially what Sifton did but his immigrants, many of whom left extended family behind, didn't bleed the nation's wealth away. In any case, the days of low hanging fruit, such as cheap land that fed North American economic expansion at the turn of the 20th century, are gone.
Today, a developed nation's wealth is largely a function of its productivity levels. Moreover, and as economist and Nobel laureate Michael Spence in his book The Next Convergence argues, if such nations are to maintain their standard of living, they need "capital-intensive jobs that have labor-productivity levels consistent with advanced-country incomes". But rather than challenge Canada's corporate sector to make the capital investments necessary to create high value jobs, a recent Kenney proposal would allow it to select its own labour pool at wages 15 percent below the average, a policy that threatens to bring wages down for every one. Worse, Canada's unemployed languish without trade or training schools that would allow them to fill those jobs instead.
All this suggests that Jason Kenney, while addressing some problems in the system, is also creating new ones and that's before considering national security and social issues caused by unnecessarily high levels of immigration. A new approach is clearly needed, one that is scaled to today's economic realities and ties immigration levels to productivity goals, resource development, infrastructure needs, social cohesion and national security concerns, the core of which was in fact suggested in the Finance Minister's recent budget. It emphasized western Canadian jobs spurred by extraordinary growth in the agricultural and energy sectors but throw in the possibility that it might also bring western oil to eastern provinces (where 90% is still imported) and you have the beginning of a new National Policy that makes the best use of Canada's workforce augmented by carefully targeted and appropriately decreased levels of immigration. The result would be a highly integrated workforce and an enduring utility that not only develops an important resource in the West but provides a base from which manufacturing can be rebuilt in the East.
From such plans are great nations built. If implemented, Jason Kenney might even make the history books as Clifford Sifton's successor.
Margret Kopala is President of the Centre for Immigration Policy Reform