Who doesn’t get into Canada

Emphasis on applicants from Asia, as opposed to, say, the Caribbean, has drawn fire. Are we engaged in country profiling?

Midway through last summer, when much of official Ottawa was away at the cottage, a revealing document landed on the desk of Canada’s top immigration bureaucrat, deputy minister Neil Yeates. Prosaically titled “Social and Economic Outcomes of Second Generation Youth,” the four-page memo showed little regard for the political correctness typical of government correspondence. “Chinese and South Asians are the most likely to have university degrees or higher, and to be employed in high-skilled occupations,” observed the summary, which was prepared by departmental bureaucrats and released recently through access to information. Second-generation youth of Caribbean and Latin American origin don’t fare so well, the memo went on; they tend to obtain lower levels of education than native-born Canadian kids and wind up in less skilled jobs.

To Richard Kurland, the Vancouver-based immigration lawyer who dug it up, the document confirmed “what everybody in the business has known for a long time.” For years, the government has been gathering data on the performance of newcomers and their children based on ethnicity, he notes, and while immigration officials deny they use information to identify the best countries from which to recruit, the numbers tell a different story. Since 1999, China and India have been the top two source countries for immigrants to Canada, averaging about 60,000 landings per year, while the number coming from the Caribbean has fallen sharply. Immigration from the West Indies had fallen 45 per cent below levels seen in the early 1990s, according to figures compiled by Statistics Canada, when more than 16,000 from that region were entering the country annually.

And these days, equipped with new legislative powers, the government is able to pick and choose more aggressively than ever. Bill C-50, passed in late 2008, allows the minister to delay the processing of applications from specific missions abroad in order to speed those from others, and so far the results have been stark. The average wait time for someone wishing to bring a spouse into the country through Kingston, Jamaica has ballooned to 15 months, fully three times the processing time in 2006. A similar application lodged in New Delhi takes just six months.

It would be simplistic to call this profiling. China and India are better represented in Canada’s intake statistics, a senior government official told Maclean’s, because they are rich in skilled, educated people willing to emigrate—not because of ethnic traits, real or imagined: “It’s a matter of basic supply and demand.” As for the memo, a spokeswoman for Citizenship and Immigration Canada would say only that it reflects the department’s ongoing concern for groups “experiencing less positive outcomes from an immigration, settlement and a multiculturalism perspective.”

Still, both the memo and numbers reflect a preoccupation that has come to define the Harper government’s approach to immigration: which applicants offer the greatest long-term value—now or a generation or two down the line? In speech after speech, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney points up pressures wrought by the country’s low birth rate and advancing economy, noting that 100 per cent of Canada’s labour growth will have to come from outside the country by 2016. Under the circumstances, he says, there is little place for electorally driven immigration, in which governments endlessly expanded family reunification quotas in return for goodwill at voting time. “The standard Liberal electoral strategy in the past three decades has been a kind of shameless pandering to immigrant communities,” Kenney charges in an interview. “It didn’t work. They over-promised and under-delivered.”

It all sounds well and good: a system that emphasizes merit rather than familial connection or crass politics. But recruiting 250,000 immigrants per year, as Ottawa hopes to do for the foreseeable future, will require sweeping, some would say un-Canadian, judgments. Do some countries offer better immigrants, on average, than others? Whose children do better? What, exactly, do we mean by “better”? Deciding who gets into the country has arguably never been so important. And rarely has it been so hard.

The idea that we might goose our economy with strategic immigration isn’t new, of course. Clifford Sifton’s “stalwart peasant in a sheepskin coat” was an early 1900s version of today’s “designer immigrant”—an applicant in, say, her late 20s, with a graduate degree and $300,000 in savings. Yet the latter half of the century saw waves of newcomers enter through the country’s other gateway: programs allowing those already here to sponsor family members from abroad. Tradesmen who flooded in from southern Europe in the ’50s and ’60s sponsored their spouses and children, as did women who had arrived from Jamaica, Haiti and Trinidad to work as housekeepers. By 1976, nearly 10 per cent of the country’s immigrants were coming from the Caribbean, though the region represented about 0.6 per cent of the world’s population.

By 1993, with the family-class quotient nearing 44 per cent of the intake, decision-makers were starting to worry. Successive immigration ministers under prime minister Jean Chrétien jacked up the number of so-called economic immigrants—skilled workers, or people with money—pushing family-class applicants’ share of intake down to 24 per cent in 2005. For a party with deep political ties to the country’s ethnic communities, this was risky policy, and soon the Grits were taking heat over a 100,000-case backlog in the number of residents trying to bring their parents and grandparents into the country. In 2005, then-minister Joe Volpe buckled under the pressure, promising to triple the number of family reunification applications the department would process.

Kenney’s break with this pattern has been one of tone as much as substance: while he talks up the importance of economic immigration, he’s cultivated his own strong ties with ethnic groups and maintained family-class immigration targets at or near previous levels. Bill C-50, however, allows Kenney to move with a freedom his Liberal predecessors would have envied, fast-tracking applicants in 38 high-demand occupations—from petroleum engineers to hotel managers—while effectively shutting off the tap from parts of the world awash in family-class applications. Caribbean, Latin American and African candidates appear to have been hit hardest. Canadian-based parents who apply to the immigration post in Nairobi to bring over their children are told they must wait three years, nearly double the projected wait in 2006. In Guatemala, the delay is up 63 per cent during the same period, to 23 months, while wait times for Asian and Pacific countries have grown only marginally.

The sense of unequal treatment rankles people like Jessica Thomas, a 29-year-old Barbudan-Canadian who lives in Toronto. Four years ago, she married a man from Barbuda here in Toronto and became pregnant. But after her husband, Nicholas, returned a few weeks later to the tiny Caribbean island to care for his ailing father, he found he couldn’t get back; evidently, officials suspected the marriage was a sham. Thomas was infuriated (“Who spends $40,000 on a sham wedding?”), not least by the contempt she says the couple encountered at Canada’s high commission in Trinidad. “I’ve found them very rude,” she says, pointedly noting that top positions at the mission appear to be occupied by Asians, Indians and white people. “Maybe they look at people who come from the Caribbean and live off the system. Well, we’re not in that category.”

It’s the sort of ill will that is worth it only if the government can point to tangible results. For the Tories, that’s no slam dunk. Despite the new emphasis on economic immigration, a StatsCan study released in February showed that less than one in four newcomers are finding work in the occupations they’d trained for, while immigrants in general are less likely to be employed than native-born Canadians. It is now trite for politicians to bemoan the professional barriers stopping skilled workers from finding jobs in their field—the proverbial cab driver with a Ph.D. But little has been done to remedy the problem.

Meantime, the de-emphasis on family unification may be driving away the very people the government is trying to recruit. Jim Karygiannis, a Liberal MP representing the ethnically diverse riding of Scarborough-Agincourt, says he’s been hearing from skilled workers and business-class migrants frustrated by the government’s policy of consigning sponsorship applications for parents and grandparents to the bottom of the pile. “A lot of immigrant families want to have the parents or grandparents here to help raise the kids,” he says. “If they can’t do that, they say, ‘Thank you very much but I’m gone.’ ” This is no small concern, given the benefits Canada has gained from immigrants who had upwardly mobile children. (In addition to its ethnic breakdown, last summer’s memo quotes studies concluding that second-generation immigrant youth are on the whole more likely to get high school diplomas, university degrees and high-skill jobs than kids of native-born Canadians.)

All of which exposes the government to criticism that it is turning its back on—if not discriminating against—the sort of people who helped build the country. “I don’t think family reunification exists in [this government’s] vocabulary,” says Judy Sgro, a Liberal MP who served as immigration minister in 2004. Luin Goldring, a York University professor who has studied the difficulties faced by Caribbean and Latin American immigrants, questions “the whole business of looking at people as economic units.” “It divides the person into their economic role and social role,” she says, when studies have shown that all classes of immigrants integrate more smoothly if they establish strong family support networks.

Yet even critics like Sgro acknowledge the need to “get it right” as Canada enters the post-baby-boom economic era, with a birth rate of 1.66 and a host of entitlement programs and pensions to pay for. It is no less a challenge than the one government faced at the turn of the century, when it set out to settle the West, observes Alan Simmons, the author of a forthcoming history on immigration to Canada. But now, as a free-trading nation in a knowledge economy, he says, we would “like to recruit only the perfect designer immigrants,” and that means leaning on the narrow band of countries that have them in surplus. It also means pinching the flow from countries where the education system is lacking, or money is scarce.

It’s a far cry from our fondest self-image as a haven for the lowly, who yearn for a better life. Years ago, during a cross-country train trip, Maclean’s journalist Rae Corelli summoned a romantic image of Canada’s French and English founders leaving “a key under the mat for dreamers from other lands.” The key is still there, of course. But as we weigh an uncertain future, we’re getting a lot more picky about whom we invite to use it.