Immigration Policy and Urban Poverty

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posted April 22, 2004

A recent Statistics Canada report indicates that incomes in larger Canadian cities have virtually stagnated since the 1990s. Related to this is the fact that recent immigrants have much lower earnings and higher poverty levels than those who came earlier and that this is the main reason for the poor economic performance of residents of large cities.

While a number of factors are involved, one that few have been prepared to acknowledge is that we are simply bringing in far more people than we need or can absorb.

Various reasons have been advanced for why newcomers in general are not doing well. An obvious one is that a substantial proportion (40 percent of the total) are in the family class or refugee category – neither of whom are required to have marketable skills or a knowledge of English or French. Serious questions have been raised about both of these programs – family class immigration because it is a major drag on the overall economic performance of immigrants and because it is given priority mainly for political gain – and refugees because we take large numbers of claimants whom other countries would not regard as genuine refugees but rather economic migrants who lack the qualifications to apply as immigrants.

For these reasons the government has in the past few years increased the proportion of skilled immigrants – particularly in relation to family class – in the hopes that it would maintain high immigration levels but with a better outcome. In the event, however, immigrants in general, even those selected on the basis of their education and skills are continuing to do poorly.

Various explanations have been advanced for this state of affairs. These include the fact that, while many may have impressive academic qualifications, they lack fluency in English or encounter difficulties with having their foreign credentials recognized in Canada. A further problem is that many of their qualifications are not relevant to Canadian labour market needs – particularly as our economy becomes increasingly knowledge-based.

Even more fundamental, however, is the issue of how many skilled newcomers are really required. To justify the current high immigration levels as well as plans to raise them even further, government spokespersons argue both that we need them because of an imminent labour shortage in Canada or because, in the longer term, we will need additional workers to compensate for a shrinking workforce and higher proportion of retirees as our population lives longer and the Canadian fertility rate remains below replacement levels.

With regard to problems associated with an aging population, while these will have to be addressed, it has been definitively established that immigration does not provide a practical solution. It is equally clear that we are not facing an imminent labour shortage despite government attempts to create the opposite impression.

If anything we would appear to have an overall surplus of skilled workers – at least for the next few years. In its most recent annual assessment of Canada’s economic prospects, the Conference Board of Canada stated, for example, that “contrary to earlier predictions, Canada will…not face any labour shortages over the remainder of the decade. In fact, over the next few years, the challenge will be to find employment for the large number of new entrants.”

The Conference Board is by no means alone in reaching conclusions that are at odds with current immigration policies. A C.D. Howe Institute report released earlier this month on the declining earnings of immigrants recommended that the government postpone its plans to raise immigration levels and rethink the increased emphasis it has been placing on skilled immigrants.

Having said this, there may still be gaps in the labour force that are sufficiently severe that selected immigration is necessary in the short term - until the normal processes of supply and demand increases the number of trained Canadians available. Professionals in the health care sector are a case in point. What is quite clear, however, is that Ottawa continues to entice thousands of well-qualified immigrants to leave successful careers in their homelands on the false premise that there are good opportunities for them here.

It is high time that that the government of Canada put an end to this policy of deception that is not only unfair to newcomers but places increasing and completely unnecessary burdens on large urban centres such as Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, where virtually all of them settle. While the recent sponsorship scandal has attracted much more public and media attention than immigration policy, the latter in the long term will have far more impact on the country.

Canadians should, therefore, insist that Ottawa hold an open and informed national debate on immigration policy and that participation extend beyond the government’s usual list of so-called “stakeholders” those who have a vested interest in promoting an ever-increasing intake of newcomers. This is a matter of increasing urgency for Canada and should be a major issue the anticipated federal election.

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