For minister Sean Fraser, immigration and housing are more than just numbers games

Ambitious new immigration targets and a country-wide housing squeeze have Canadians asking: where are we going to put everyone? That’s Fraser’s job to answer.
Katie Underwood
Sean Fraser, Canada’s new minister of housing, infrastructure and communities, poses in Merigomish, N.S. (Photography by Darren Calabrese)

On the off chance you overhear a Canadian bragging, it’s usually to say that this is the greatest country in the world. It might violate our national modesty policy to add that we’re now also one of the most desirable, but the data’s there: in 2022, we welcomed close to a million newcomers (a record) and, a year prior, unseated the U.S. as the number-one destination for international workers. People want to come to Canada, and Canada really wants them here.

In June, staring down the ongoing labour shortage, the federal government announced a revamped federal express-entry system, complete with shiny new expedited pathways to permanent residency for U.S. H-1B visa holders and immigrants with sought-after expertise in fields like health care, tech and, crucially, the trades. Prior to a surprise cabinet shuffle by the Prime Minister in late July, the man responsible for delivering on the government’s ambitious target—500,000 immigrants annually by 2025—was Sean Fraser, then the minister of immigration, refugees and citizenship.

Fraser, a trained lawyer and loyal Nova Scotian, spent his whole life watching talent flee his home province for more promising opportunities elsewhere. His old office is facing a backlog 800,000 applications deep—not to mention newly urgent questions about Canada’s affordability, thanks in part to our bonkers real estate market. Those same questions follow Fraser into his new role as minister of housing, infrastructure and communities. When Maclean’s spoke with him in the weeks leading up to his new appointment, Fraser was convinced that Canada is the place to be, warts and all.

According to Statistics Canada’s “population clock,” Canada hit 40 million people just before 3 p.m. EST on Friday, June 16. Where were you when you heard the news?

I think I saw it on social media at some point; I wasn’t tracking it. My mind is on whether people get reunited with families and whether businesses can access workers.

So no plaque? No balloons?

I hate to disappoint. We did have a cake for my two-year-old’s birthday yesterday. He’s getting too big too quickly.

You’re 39; I’m 35. I don’t know about you, but I’ve cited the 30 million–ish factoid as long as I’ve been alive. Is it hard to wrap your head around this new milestone?

Looking back at my earliest citizenship ceremonies, my speeches often included something like, “There’s not one way to be Canadian, but 38 million different ways.” I’ve had to shift that. But Canada’s been ascending the ranks of countries people most want to move to for economic opportunities. The U.S. and Germany used to take the top two spots. It’s not a race, though.

Immigration may not be a race, but your office is banking on many, many more people becoming permanent residents. Like, 500,000 more, every year.

People have to be careful when trying to understand those numbers. It’s not uncommon for half of the “new” permanent residents in the annual count to have already been here as temporary ones—some are temporary foreign workers or international students. Last year, we added 437,000 permanent residents. We’re looking at a gradual increase to 500,000 by 2025.

More than ever, the immigration conversation centres on labour—or how Canada will replace the huge wave of retiring workers. You recently introduced a category-specific entry strategy, with preference given to workers in specific industries, like health care. How does this approach differ from the old one?

We need to respond to the skills gaps resulting from the changing economy and retiring workers. (For what it’s worth, 50 years ago, there were seven workers for every retiree in this country. In Atlantic Canada, where I am, it’s now closer to two.) The federal express-entry system scores applicants based on factors like education and language skills. The new parameters also take the highest-scoring applicants in in-demand sectors—more doctors, more homebuilders and more tech workers.

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Back in June, you unveiled the country’s first-ever tech talent strategy—its actual name—to create a steady pipeline of American-dwelling H-1B visa holders to Canada. Are you attempting a reverse brain-drain?

The move wasn’t driven by little-brother syndrome. It was a real-time response to layoffs at some U.S. tech giants. If you’re on an H-1B visa and you lose your job, you either have to find a new one or leave within 60 days. Some of those workers might want to stay in the North American market. We’d be happy to have them.

You’re also courting digital nomads—people whose jobs allow them to work from anywhere in the world. What’s your elevator pitch when people ask, “Why work from Canada when you could work from home?”

Come here for up to six months to test drive Canada while still working for a foreign employer. If you receive a valid job offer from a company here, you can apply for a work permit. The real value proposition, though, is the chance to become one of us. Don’t underestimate how powerful that is. People born to Canadian parents sometimes take our daily rewards for granted: being able to go to the doctor when you get sick and earning a meaningful income if you work hard and have skills to offer.

Bringing people to Canada en masse isn’t a success unto itself; they need to be able to thrive when they get here. Many citizens and permanent residents are without family doctors, they’re being crushed by housing prices—even groceries. It’s not actually as simple as “hard work pays off” anymore.

You have to look at the counterfactual if you’re going to say it’ll be more difficult for newcomers and citizens to thrive in this country if you add more people.

That’s not what I’m saying.

When I was an MP candidate in 2015, the biggest controversies in my province were the closures of River John Elementary School and the mental health unit at Aberdeen Hospital, one of the largest regional hospitals in northern Nova Scotia. One psychiatrist left and it became too unsafe to operate the entire unit. Look at a local machine shop that hires foreign workers, and you’ll realize that the job of every tradesperson on the floor can depend on a linchpin employee. Before we get into what we need to do to accommodate those arriving in Canada, we should recognize the drastic consequences our communities will suffer if we adopt a negative approach toward newcomers. So, with that giant preamble out of the way—

I’m going to interrupt you here. I realize that, with these new targets, you’re specifically looking for, say, construction professionals to build the houses people need to live in, which will increase overall affordability.

I can tell you that, 365 days a year, I will choose the problem of having to rapidly build more houses because so many people want to move to my community over losing schools and hospitals because so many people are leaving.

Black and white photo of a man in a suit with his body facing sideways and looking off into the distance

Fair, but it’s not an either-or. Righting the housing market will take time. Immigrants are arriving now in a system that already has massive cracks in it.

We’ve woken up to the fact that we need to use our immigration policies to help solve some of our social challenges rather than exacerbate them. Yes, we’re bringing in homebuilders, but we’ve also got new regional strategies, like the new Rural and Northern Immigration Pilot, which would spread people out more evenly, so they don’t all land in Ontario.

And the settlement services?

Generally speaking, there’s federally funded language training and employment assistance. Other services will go as far as to help you open a bank account or sign your kids up for soccer. There is no silver bullet, but the good news is, when you look at the children of newcomers, their outcomes are more or less on par with kids whose parents were born here.

I appreciate that this is a highly complex long game, but in Toronto, where I live, city officials have been dealing with a 500 per cent increase in the number of asylum seekers in the shelter system. I can’t count how many stories I’ve read about trained doctors driving Ubers. Immigration detainees, some of whom may not present a meaningful risk to public safety, are languishing in provincial jails. This is also Canada.

These issues need to be addressed. We’re not used to receiving this many asylum claims or irregular border crossings, which was a real challenge at Roxham Road. One of the men who delivered food for my son’s birthday was a dentist trying to get qualified to practise in Nova Scotia. It frustrates me. Each of those problems requires a unique solution. We’re also going to do what, I think, most serves Canada’s long-term interests: embrace ambitious immigration in targeted areas to meet the needs of the economy.

Do you ever think that having an impenetrable gratitude mindset stops Canadians from grappling with serious systemic issues?

I’m not going to tell you that Canada is perfect—not by a long shot. When I speak at citizenship ceremonies, I often talk about the Charter values that bind us, but also the times that we fell short of them. We just passed the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prevented Chinese people from coming here—many of whom already had loved ones here who helped to build Canada. Still, many countries can’t openly confront their challenges because they’re not a liberal democracy. We are. Looking at the other side of the coin, there’s a lot to be grateful for.

READ: My Prediction: More than 465,000 people will move to Canada in 2023. We aren’t ready.

Apparently, your office now uses “advanced analytics” to lower processing times. Is AI deciding who gets in and who stays out?

Let me be clear: an officer, a human being, makes the final decisions in all cases. I will add that, during the pandemic, we digitized most of our paper files. We didn’t raise a “Mission accomplished!” banner, but people were excited.

Isn’t technology great?

Yeah, when it works.

Where does the Fraser clan hail from?

We fled Scotland during the Highland Clearances 250 years ago and washed up on the shores of Nova Scotia 10 minutes from New Glasgow, where I live now. My parents are in Merigomish, which has a couple hundred people, eight of whom are related to me. It’s the kind of place where we come out of the woods to go hunting, to put things in perspective.

I also heard you play the bagpipes—a part of your heritage.

Thanks to my grandfather. He was born in Canada but very much a classic grumpy old Scotsman. Come hell or high water, I was going to play the pipes.

Have you really mastered any tunes? If you’re not good at the bagpipes, uh…

They’re beautiful when somebody’s playing them well. I can play most of the traditional tunes, like “Sleepy Maggie.” I once played a New Year’s Eve show with an AC/DC tribute band. I did the bagpipe part of “It’s a Long Way to the Top.”

Now for a bit of Maclean’s history: we used to have an award called Parliamentarians of the Year. In 2021, you were a finalist for Best Orator, alongside Alain Therrien of the Bloc Québécois and Pierre Poilievre. You won.

I enjoyed the back-and-forth that I had with Pierre. I wouldn’t be surprised if, for a while, I took more questions from him than any other member of the House of Commons. Anyway, it’s nice to be recognized for your contributions.

Speaking of, at a televised event back in May, you were introduced as “Mr. Sexy” by Hedy Fry, a fellow Liberal MP. Is this an official title? Is there some kind of internal ranking everyday Canadians aren’t aware of?

God bless Hedy—I think she made that up on the spot. So no official award. My friends are having more fun with that than they ought to. I fear it may stick.

Did the Prime Minister get express entry into this competition?

When you’re up close, the guy looks like a movie star. I hope that, whatever his appearance, people will remember his government for the problems it solved and the people it helped.

Well, most of us would rather be more valued for our brains than our looks.

That’s right.

Are there any citizenship ceremonies that stand out to you as especially poignant?

On Canada Day, new citizens from nine different countries took their oaths at a Blue Jays game. I had my daughter with me—a seven-year-old hugging a bunch of new Canadians, pure joy on their faces. Thousands of people were cheering. The near-universal reaction was to welcome.