How Canada's immigration system really works -

How Canada’s immigration system really works

The system that admits newcomers to Canada is complex—and often misunderstood


Whether it’s Donald Trump praising Canada’s points-based immigration system, concern over refugee numbers, or Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch insisting each applicant should get a face-to-face interview, Canada’s immigration system has been under the microscope lately.

Chatelaine spoke with Daniel Hiebert, a UBC professor of geography who specializes in immigration, about how it works.

The basics

There are two policy objectives that drive immigration: economic growth and reaffirming Canada’s international humanitarian commitments.

The majority of immigrants who come to Canada are admitted based on their potential to contribute to the economy—and most of those people apply under streams that target highly skilled workers. While economic immigrants make up 58 percent of planned immigration in 2017, that number also includes family members the principal applicant is bringing along with them, who they pledge to support.

Others fall under the categories of family reunification (28 percent), refugees and protected persons (13 percent) and a small number are admitted on humanitarian and compassionate grounds (1 percent).

Source: Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada

Source: Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada

How many immigrants does Canada take in every year?

In 2014, the last full year of Stephen Harper’s government, over 260,000 permanent residents were admitted to Canada. That number has grown under the Liberals—but not by much. The target for 2016 was 300,000—and that same target was kept for 2017. While that number might seem high, it’s not a record. In 1913, over 400,000 people were admitted, encouraged by the government’s Western settlement campaign—proportionally, that’s more than five times today’s rates.

Hiebert says people tend not to understand how the number of immigrants translates into proportion of the Canadian population—in a country of 36 million, 300,000 represents less than 1 percent of the population.

How does that number compare to other countries? The United States took in 1,051,031 permanent residents in 2015, or about 0.3 percent of their population of 320 million. One percent is pretty comparable to Australia, which admitted 189,770 permanent residents in the year 2015-2016—0.8 percent of their population of 24 million.

Where do immigrants come from?

Here are the top 10 countries immigrants came from in 2015:

  1. Philippines
  2. India
  3. China
  4. Iran
  5. Pakistan
  6. Syria
  7. United States
  8. France
  9. United Kingdom and colonies
  10. Nigeria

What makes the Canadian system “merit-based”?

In an address to Congress, Donald Trump lauded Canada’s “merit-based immigration system,” characterizing it as a way to ensure immigrants can support themselves and for the country to move away from “lower-skilled immigration.”

The points system for immigrants applying in the skilled worker stream was introduced in 1967 as a way to screen immigrants on merit, without discriminating based on ethnicity or nationality.

Today, those applying as skilled workers are assessed in six categories: English/French skills, education (most points for PhDs), years of full-time work experience, age (most points given to those 18-35), and whether or not they have a Canadian job offer.

The focus on acquiring highly skilled workers, however, has made it incredibly difficult for those in lower skilled professions to become permanent residents.

What are the challenges after arrival?

Hiebert says a common misconception is that because so many immigrants are selected based on their professional experience, that once they get here, everything goes smoothly for them. But the first 10 years in particular are challenging.

A large part of their initial struggle boils down to immigrants trying to acquire Canadian professional credentials, which often takes a significant investment of both time and money.

Although immigrant employment levels are high—in some cities across Canada higher than the general population—they aren’t necessarily becoming high earners. In the first 10 years after arrival, immigrants are underrepresented in the top half of income brackets. After that period, however, they are overrepresented—an indication that both the individual and the economy benefits for immigration in the long run, Hiebert says.

Do we need to change the screening process?

Conservative leadership candidates Maxime Bernier and Kellie Leitch have both called for increased screening measures—Bernier is for more rigorous background checks and more face-to-face interviews, and Leitch has advocated that all immigrants get one-on-one interviews.

In Hiebert’s view, this is simply a waste of money since Canada already hasvery tough” security and criminality checks. While a small percentage of applicants still get face to face interviews, Hiebert says the government has moved away from interviews not only because of the cost, but also because of the “inevitable bias” that creeps into the application process when relying on opinion of immigration officers.

“If we had great, huge numbers of first-generation immigrants who are running around committing horrendous crimes in Canada it would be very noticeable,” says Hiebert.

While he acknowledges that number isn’t zero, studies by Statistics Canada and researchers like University of Toronto professor Ron Levi looking at youth crime rates in cities have shown that ratesare lower among recent immigrants, and immigration in general has been credited as one of the reasons for the continuous decline in crime in Canada.

Is the dilution of so-called “Canadian values” really an issue?

As part of their policy platforms, Leitch and Bernier have said there should be greater emphasis on the preservation of “Canadian values” when selecting immigrants. Bernier’s website, for instance, it  reads: “Our immigration policy should not aim to forcibly change the cultural character and social fabric of Canada, as radical proponents of multiculturalism want.”

“To expect that we will admit 300,000 people per year for the foreseeable future and not have further cultural change is, frankly, preposterous,” says Hiebert. But to Hiebert, that cultural change isn’t a bad thing. He points to Canadian values in the 1960s and 1970s, where “it was perfectly acceptable to denigrate Aboriginal people, to tell ‘ethnic jokes’, to ogle women.” In his view, the progress made on these fronts happened alongside immigration—and partly because of it.


How Canada’s immigration system really works

  1. This article takes the narrow focus of immigrants while, for whatever reason, ignoring other temporary immigrants, a portion of which morph into permanent status. First, there are individuals admitted under the much maligned temporary foreign workers program that is currently running around 65,000 but peaked at over 100,000 under Harper. Second, there’s the international mobility program that, like the TFW program, is nominally needs based, currently at 250,000. Third, there’s international students at around 350,000, over 17% of all enrollment – a cash cow for post-secondary institutions as they charge them premium fees. Fourth, there’s a variable number of non-economic temporary residents averaging 50,000. In total, the number of non-permanent residents is over 750,000 – equal to about 3 years of permanent immigration. However, while some portion of temporary residents become permanent, a portion of permanent residents, i.e. immigrants, leave. It is truly a complex situation which some cons try to paint in the most simplistic terms possible – what CNN now calls non-fact-based allegation.
    As for the effect of immigration on Canadian values, as a second generation Canadian I’m offended by the values expressed by certain politicians and their notion of ‘old stock Canadians’ which is just a spin on colonial hegemony; it is presumptuous and misguided for them to suggest they speak for all Canadians.
    The notion of a superior white anglo-saxon cadre with an alternate underclass should be done and dusted – too bad it isn’t. Too bad for CPC rednecks, past immigration to Canada and therefore who we are is a multicultural amalgam.

    • Geraldr,

      I imagine you are thinking of Kellie Leicht, for one, when you say, “I’m offended by the values expressed by certain politicians and their notion of ‘old stock Canadians’ “. She did come across as thinking she was superior when she came out with the 3 questions to test values. She has the right idea but could not solve the problem of how to deal with it – the matter of different values. And I do not agree with you that we can simply accept the values that all immigrants bring with them and combine them with our own. That’s not how things work. In time, it would be the group with the most power that gets to keep their values, while the rest learn to tolerate them. Remember the aboriginal people!

      Under multiculturalism, certainly the best of other countries values could be part of our own. And each community of immigrants will have their own ways. Even in the 50s, we had our own Newcomers Club, eager to celebrate Christmas, and so on, with like-minded people – and people who have shared like experiences. But it isn’t about a “white anglo-saxon cadre” sharing space with an “alternate underclass.” What it is is the country called Canada, which has its values and is open to accepting other customs and values, if they fit in with what we have. As we know, some customs, and some kinds of laws, don’t fit with ours.

      I didn’t care for Sadiya Ansara’s conclusion that it has been 70s and later immigration that led to a more accepting and understanding society, according to Hiebert, implying that further immigration can only benefit Canada. Our country has grown up over the years, has become education and more knowledgeable through experience. It is no longer immigrants themselves who hold the key to the definition of multiculturalism and what is good for Canada.

  2. “But to Hiebert, that cultural change isn’t a bad thing. He points to Canadian values in the 1960s and 1970s, where ‘it was perfectly acceptable to denigrate Aboriginal people, to tell ‘ethnic jokes’, to ogle women.’ In his view, the progress made on these fronts happened alongside immigration—and partly because of it” (Sadiya Ansari).

    I don’t believe changes in attitudes towards aboriginal people came as a result of further immigration post 1970. More likely, it came as a result of learning about the native population, through the internet (90s) or as they themselves became more integrated into society – at university, jobs, and so on. I shared a room with a young native woman in the 60s, in Winnipeg, as a student, while she had a job already. That was probably the first such person I met and got to know. I don’t recall knowing any black people, either, during those years spent mainly in an ordinary Canadian city – Woodstock, Ontario. Our horizons are broadened by travelling, if we are able to take it all in.

    Our values include that of acceptance, and understanding, but I am questioning just how far the value of tolerance must be included at this point. Some of the people coming from other countries have endured the most violent of circumstances, or of doing without and having to struggle to survive, and I wonder how much that experience has affected their values even when finally in a safe environment. How far do we have to go, as individuals, of trying to help them adjust to life in this country? I see that values aren’t only about the big issues, eg, do you beat your wife, but also about acceptable behaviours, such as standing in line to be served without jumping the queue, or trying to fit in, language-wise and through knowledge of our Western ways. When so many immigrants are being allowed in every year, will our government be able to put on the brakes when necessary, when we recognize the changes in our society coming that we never dreamed of? Will we still be able to celebrate Christmas without sounding defensive about it? Will our children grow up knowing of the history of the first European settlers, or will that be as hidden from them as the stories of the aboriginals who were here before us? Can we count on so many immigrants from more largely-populated countries understanding that we are not all the same?