Over the past four years, the federal government has introduced sweeping changes to Canada's immigration policy with unprecedented speed – and with serious consequences for the country's reputation, economy and nation-building goals, according to the Toronto think tank Maytree.
In a report released on Thursday entitled "Shaping the future: Canada's rapidly changing immigration policies," authors Naomi Alboim and Karen Cohl warn that the rapid reforms could threaten how potential immigrants perceive the country, deterring the people who are needed the most.
Ms. Alboim, a Maytree senior fellow and chairwoman of the Policy Forum at the School of Policy Studies at Queen's University, explains:
What was the most alarming finding of your report?
It's the accumulative impact of all these changes. First and foremost, it seems as if there is a real short-term focus on using immigration policy for immediate labour market purposes as opposed to for long-term nation-building. And a number of the changes – like the increase in temporary foreign workers, like growing the economic class at the expense of others, like having an occupational screen for federal skilled workers – all really puts a focus on immediate labour market needs.
But Canadian businesses do have immediate labour demands that need to be addressed. So what is wrong with focusing on the short-term?
When you bring in a lot of temporary foreign workers, employers don't necessarily look at who is already in their work force, or who is in the community who could be trained or provided with better working conditions so they can, in fact, do the work that is required. They don't invest in infrastructure or technology to get the work done.
Economists across the country are very concerned about the increase in the temporary foreign worker program. One thing we know, particularly about the low-skilled temporary foreign worker program, is they don't leave at the end of their terms and they go underground and become undocumented. That's happened in other countries and could be problematic here.
The other issue about focusing purely on the short-term is if you recruit someone for particular skills in a particular occupation that is needed today, it doesn't mean that they have the adaptability or the flexibility to do the jobs of tomorrow.
Your report raises the idea of letting immigrants who are already here fill the temporary foreign worker jobs.
I think there are a lot of under-employed and unemployed immigrants, refugees and other long-standing Canadians in this country. If employers are not encouraged to look at them and just seek temporary foreign workers, we are doing a disservice to people who are already here. Some refugees might be very interested in doing some of the lower-skilled jobs as their entry into the labour market, and if provided with the necessary supports, would be quite capable of doing that. But all of the immigration changes have been implemented in silos, without looking at the interaction between the various streams and programs.
You note some changes are positive, but with hesitation. Why do you have reservations?
Because some of them are very early on, and we don't know how they're going to be implemented.
For example, the introduction of an appeal process in the refugee determination process is really quite wonderful. Unfortunately, only certain refugee claimants will be eligible to access that appeal process. The introduction of higher language skills required of federal skilled workers, I think, is a positive thing in the sense we know language is a really good predictor of labour market success. On the other hand, we don't know if the criteria is set at too high a bar and whether that is going to result in reducing or eliminating the number of people from certain parts of the world that we have traditionally relied on, from which immigrants have done really well, and certainly their children have done really well.
You suggest we could be at risk of becoming less welcoming to the people Canada needs. Who do we need, and how might we be turning them away?
Immigrants have chosen Canada in the past for a whole variety of reasons. Some of them pertain more to a sense of stability, democracy, respect for multiculturalism – all of those kinds of intangibles, in addition to a job and friends and family. When the government says we're really only interested in people who can speak English or when they start using terminology that puts immigration more on the law-and-order agenda, rather than on the nation-building agenda, like "bogus refugees" or "people taking advantage of Canada's generosity," or "fraudsters" or "cheaters", it starts making Canadians look at their neighbours a little bit differently and perhaps makes people from the outside look at Canadians a little differently.
In terms of stability and security, when immigration changes happen so quickly, if you apply and you play the game according to the rules and you're in a queue for a number of years, and your application is sent back to you, saying "sorry, we've changed the rules," that causes concern.
All those kinds of things in accumulation make people think: Is this the country they want to come to? We need immigrants who will come and stay, and we want them to feel welcomed here even before they even arrive and certainly after they arrive. We want them to become citizens and contribute in every possible way, and some of the messaging now may not seem welcoming.
Has there already been a shift in how potential immigrants view the country?
I think it's too early to tell. We know that the applications from China are really down. China is no longer the first source-country for the first time in many, many years; China is now number three. We are already beginning to see some changes, but we have to monitor this very carefully.
Among the many recommendations in your report, which do we need to act on right away?
What's really important is the recommendation that there be a national conversation about these issues, that we inform and involve the public, and that we focus on the long-term social and economic objectives and a commitment to citizenship as a foundational piece for our immigration policy. We really have to focus on evidence-based and comprehensive policy, and I think we really have to look at everything we can do to enhance Canada's reputation around the world. I think it's a combination of those things.