For young and well-educated Chinese like Emily Gao, the lure of immigrating to Canada is obvious: Clean air, public health care and a strong education system are all draws compared with living in a country that lacks them. Add the large Chinese communities that already exist in places such as Vancouver and Toronto, plus relatively cheap real estate (compared with prices in some Chinese cities), and you have something close to a dream destination.
What's not so clear is that skilled young workers like her would be better off economically if they make the leap.
"In Canada, you have a good standard of living, but you can't make big money," says the 29-year-old Ms. Gao, who has a finance degree from the University of Toronto and owns a home in Richmond Hill, Ont., but is back in Shanghai, where she and her new husband have both found well-paid jobs.
Ms. Gao's decision to move back home highlights the new realities Canada faces in attracting skilled immigrants. Ironically, she now works to match Chinese buyers with property in Canada, and staffed a booth at this month's Shanghai World Real Estate Expo where Vancouver-based realtor Westbank Corp. offered everything from condominiums in Vancouver to luxury apartments in Toronto.
Like her, many of the prospective buyers said they admire the social system in Canada but are not sure that they would be better off there.
Another common complaint is that Canada's shifting immigration policies now favour those with money to invest over the skilled workers they used to emphasize (although changes to the Federal Skilled Worker Program proposed by Immigration Minister Jason Kenney seek to address that).
Once seen as a great place to live and work, Canada is increasingly considered by many Chinese more as a great place to retire.
"My son studied and then worked in Canada, but he's back in Shanghai because the opportunities are better here now," said a retired civil servant touring the real-estate show who would only give his family name, Zhou.
Nonetheless, Mr. Zhou was looking at properties in Canada because his son, an investment banker who graduated from the University of British Columbia, has permanent-resident status and would consider returning to B.C. if the whole family could make the move. However, "they want only investors," he said of Immigration Canada. "You have to have money."
Wang Huiyao, vice-chair of the Western Returned Scholars Association, an umbrella agency for foreign-educated Chinese academics, says that, rather than trying to attract and keep immigrants, Canada should focus on making it easier for top talent to go back and forth from their birth country.
Talented people should be treated like other resources, and the path cleared for them to move freely, in the same way governments already facilitate the flow of goods and capital, says Dr. Wang, a former graduate student at the University of Windsor and the University of Western Ontario.
"A lot of people live in Canada for a few months, and then China for a few months. ... Our policies don't really address this new phenomenon," he says, referring to immigration rules in both Canada and China.
"Right now, there's competition for talent, a talent war, going on. That's not healthy. Instead, there should be better planning. Both sides should be facilitating the movement of talent – if Canada lacks nurses and China has [extra]nurses, then China should facilitate nurses going to Canada."
The sales pitch to top talent should focus on the same natural advantages that had Chinese looking to buy property in Toronto and Vancouver, Dr. Wang says. "Canada's competitive advantage is not wheat or IT or Northern Telecom any more. The new power of Canada is soft power – the ability to attract people with its education system and health care."
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Editor's note: Westbank Corp., a Vancouver-based real estate developer, is not selling Quebec farmlands. Incorrect information appeared in the print edition of Saturday, May 12, and in a previous online version of this story. This version has been corrected.