Canada’s immigration debate is more serious than America’s

A key Clinton-Trump exchange in Las Vegas contrasts with Ottawa’s policy debate

Canada's Immigration Minister John McCallum speaks during a news conference in Ottawa, Canada November 24, 2015. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Immigration Minister John McCallum speaks during a news conference in Ottawa, Nov. 24, 2015. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

As Canadians watching U.S. politics, there is always a temptation to look for competitive advantage. What good policy will our politics allow that U.S. politics seemingly never will? Historically, the examples have been definitive—and as diverse as universal health care and a national value-added tax.

But watching this fall’s U.S. presidential election, including tonight’s debate in Las Vegas, it’s hard to look past the dumbfounding distraction that is Republican nominee Donald Trump to see the deeper policy inclinations—and disinclinations—that might be the next defining points of that policy divergence.

Still, there is one policy field where that sort of Canada-U.S. distinction is particularly pronounced this season: immigration. It’s a hot topic in both Washington and Ottawa, although in tellingly different ways. Consider first how the subject was handled in the third 2016 presidential debate.

RELATED: Our live analysis of the third presidential debate

The night’s admirably steady moderator, Chris Wallace of Fox News Channel, put the question to Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in very broad terms. He noted that immigration policy separates them more than almost any other issue, with Clinton favouring a “path to citizenship” for undocumented workers, and Trump proposing mass deportations. “The question really is,” Wallace said, “why are you right and your opponent wrong?”

And so they went at it. “We’re going to get them out, we’re going to secure the border, and once the border is secure at a later date we will make a determination as to the rest,” Trump said, adding darkly, “but we have some bad hombres here and we’re going to get them out.”

Clinton responded, “I don’t want to see the deportation force that Donald has talked about in action in our country.” She noted that he’s talking about going after 11 million undocumented adults, who happen to have four million American-citizen kids, which is inconvenient.

It’s one of those intractable U.S. politics impasses that never seems to inch any closer to solution. But in Canada—thanks mainly, we should admit, to the fact that we don’t share a long border with a much poorer country—we don’t face the partisan conditions that have made immigration a policy quagmire in the U.S.

Instead, there’s growing debate here over how to make immigration a pillar of economic policy. This week, the question is top-of-mind for Liberal policy thinkers who don’t seem to agree on what’s possible and advisable.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s elite Advisory Council on Economic Growth will reportedly be calling later this week for a massive increase in annual immigration: 450,000 people a year, up from 321,000 immigrants in the 2015-16 year, according to Statistics Canada—already the biggest influx of newcomers in a 12-month period since 1910.

But Immigration Minister John McCallum has already voiced skepticism about whether or not that is possible. And McCallum is hardly down on boosting numbers: I recently interviewed him on the new immigration targets his department is currently working on, and he sketched reforms that would seek to increase the number of international students who stay in Canada permanently, speed up the process for bringing in immigrants with high-technology skills, along with a raft of other changes.

MORE: Canada’s demographic gap can’t be filled with immigrants

“My focus now is finding the immigrants who will immediately contribute to the economy, get jobs, get good jobs, and often create the conditions that will create jobs for Canadians,” he said.

Finding those adaptable, employable future Canadians is no easy matter, though. In fact, it seems to be growing more difficult to find many thousands every year who will settle in fast. “The labour market outcomes of many immigrants are far poorer than those of their Canadian-born counterparts, and each new generation falls increasingly further away,” wrote Don Drummond and Francis Fogg in Policy Options in 2010.

More recently, a Statistics Canada report from earlier this year pointed out that major efforts have already been made by successive federal governments to find better candidates for economic success. Any easy, obvious measures were taken long ago.

In the 1990s, Ottawa sought to bring in better-educated immigrants; in the early 2000s, there was a large increase in the number of immigrants who had previous temporary work experience in Canada. Yet the outcomes, while in some areas very promising, were uneven. There’s no panacea.

But at least the debate in Canada is serious, and not blighted much by Trump-style posturing and scare-mongering. Key voices in the Conservative party want to position themselves as even more enthusiastic about larger immigration inflows than many Liberals, including former Tory immigration minister Chris Alexander, now a candidate for his party’s leadership.

RELATED: Chris Alexander on diplomacy, Donald Trump and his leadership hopes

It’s possible that immigration is now being touted too enthusiastically around Ottawa as the solution for the shrinking labour force problem Canada shares with many other developed, demographically aging democracies.

But at least the argument is over the real policy questions. How many immigrants? With what characteristics? And what’s needed to integrate them? These same questions about immigration are, of course, also discussed by Americans who take their labour market needs seriously. But not tonight in Las Vegas. While we needn’t indulge our weakness for smugness on this file, there’s no shame in identifying a clear chance to do better.


Canada’s immigration debate is more serious than America’s

  1. Our unemployment rate is high, our underemployment rate is through the roof. As Canadians young and old seek jobs that pay a living wage, Justin Trudeau and John McCallum are increasing the number of foreign workers to guarantee ‘affordable wages’ for business.
    It might be a good time to tell the government what you think. You can email immigration minister John McCallum, employment minister Maryann Mihychuk, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, at the below email addresses. Other prominent ministers follow. It would also pay to email your local MP.

    John.McCallum@ parl. gc. ca
    MaryAnn.Mihychuk@ parl. gc. ca
    Justin.Trudeau@ parl. gc. ca

    ralph.goodale@ parl. gc. ca
    Lawrence.MacAulay@ parl. gc. ca
    Stephane.Dion@ parl. gc. ca
    Dominic.LeBlanc@ parl. gc. ca
    Scott.Brison@ parl. gc. ca
    Bill.Morneau@ parl. gc. ca
    Chrystia.Freeland@ parl. gc. ca
    Navdeep.Bains@ parl. gc. ca
    Jody.Wilson-Raybould@ parl. gc. ca
    Jane.Philpott@ parl. gc. ca
    Jean-Yves.Duclos@ parl. gc. ca
    Marc.Garneau@ parl. gc. ca
    Mélanie.Joly@ parl. gc. ca

    • What nonsense: Canada’s unemployment rate ranks us about 95th among nations; on average it’s been around 5%+/-2 for two decades prior to which it was much worse. About 1998, immigration passed reproduction as the main source of population growth while almost concurrently average unemployment dropped by 3% since the previous decade. Contrary to your thesis, wage growth has been steady i.e. not affected by immigration levels except for Alberta where a large influx of workers correlates with a surge in wages. Currently, we have a minor recession thanks to the fizzling of Harper’s energy economy – note: immigrants are in no way responsible for the bad policy of CPC cowboy economists.
      I worked many years for a ‘foreign worker’ who created a $750M business from scratch and that’s not an isolated example. However, the fact is that with a fertility rate of 1.8 and falling – in spite of the generous contribution of recent immigrants – even just maintaining constant population requires immigration; given an increasingly aged population, population growth is necessary to maintain a constant number of workers.

  2. I get the feeling that this is being floated to actually create a backlash against immigration, which will then be resolved through a huge increase in temporary-foreign-workers, which is going to be necessary if we want to sell our natural resources to the developing world (which we will need to do). Countries like China and Malaysia will sign up for significant projects, but only if they can ship their own workers to Canada to do a significant amount of the work. If Canadians don’t like this, we will see our standard of living decline significantly as there will be no market for any of the goods we want to export (which is what gives us the trade we need to pay for the goods we like to import).

    Secondly, “old stock” Canadians are not going to approve of immigration levels like this when they see their own kids and grandkids already having a hard time finding good-paying jobs. The last thing they need is skilled immigrants coming in and actually driving down wages.

    Finally, I think many Canadians want more immigration to come from European countries, but I doubt that these countries are going to be wanting to increase emigration because they already have lower birth rates and a more-aged population than Canada.

    I have a feeling that there might be a backlash against more immigrants from the countries where the majority of our immigrants are currently coming from. So, where does that leave us? Temporary-foreign-workers are eventually seen as the “best option”.

    Mission Accomplished.

    • What do you think all the thumping is about? Geez…….Get with the program. Chinese buy Canadian corporations and because we’ve been rendered ‘stupid’ they have an excuse to bring their own people in. Just ask Harper and Kenny. Tumbler ridge mine???? Isn’t that right darlins’?

      As an aside to one of my ‘stalkers’……Do you still have the ‘ins’ at the local airports? I imagine you have access to police scanners too don’t you? The security clearance must come in handy. You get to know all about all the ‘activity’ in the area don’t you? Yankee Doodle……stuck a feather in his hat and called it Marconi. Neat trick with the phone. Did you enjoy my conversations?

      Could be me posting or one of my housebreakers.

      Don’t speak Chinese, Nazi German, Economics or stock market (mugs game).

  3. The bulk of the new immigrants should be sent to the places that voted Liberal, particularly the “Vatican city” of the Trudeau cult – Toronto.

    There is ample housing in Toronto, health care wait times are short, the TTC has lots of spare capacity and there is room for lots of additional traffic on the 401.

    Enjoy your new population Toronto, you voted for it!