Before Fixing System, Find Out How It Works (By Alan Thompson, The Toronto Star)

October 23,2005: Before Fixing System, Find Out How It Works (By Allan Thompson, The Toronto Star)

Before fixing system, find out how it works


Liberal politicians have claimed for more than a decade that they want to dramatically increase immigration. In fact, boosting Canada's immigration levels to more than 300,000 per year or 1 per cent of the population has been the Liberal government's official mantra sincee 1993. But it is a policy that has never been implemented.

Now, with an election on the horizon, Prime Minister Paul Martin and Citizenship and Immigration Minister Joe Volpe are again talking about Liberal plans to dramatically increase immigration levels from the current range of about 230,000 per year. Martin told Liberal MPs last month he wants to boost immigration by 100,000. And in a public speech to bureaucrats, the Prime Minister said: “Canada needs more immigrants, plain and simple.” Volpe also talks about plans to rejig the point system to take in more workers in the skilled trades.

Foreign Affairs Minister Pierre Pettigrew not one of the ussual suspects on immigration policy used a major foreign policy speech recently to call for increased immigration, in the interest of boosting Canada's population to 40 million and shoring up pension funds for retiring baby boomers.

If the Liberals are true to form, they will talk for a few months about increasing immigration, then do nothing. But just in case they mean it this time, wouldn't it be a good idea to agree what we're talking about?

The conventional wisdom is that mass immigration has been good for Canada. But, sometimes, Canada's immigration program seems to work in spite of itself, because of the sheer force of the human spirit. Despite years of study some of it conducted behind closed doors I'm not sure we have actuually figured out how our immigration program works. To get a sense of the range of opinion, you need look no further than two significant studies released in the midst of the Liberal chatter about opening the doors.

On Oct. 13, Statistics Canada released the second in a major series of studies based on a unique database it has developed to examine the immigrant experience in Canada. The study is called The Longitudinal Survey of Immigrants to Canada: Progress and Challenges of New Immigrants in the Workforce.

This is the second such study. During the first wave conducted in 2001, StatsCan interviewed about 12,000 immigrants face to face, about six months after their arrival in Canada. Two years later, the researchers went back and interviewed 9,300 of those same immigrants to follow up on how they were doing. A third wave of interviews is now being conducted.

Initial results showed new immigrants were having some difficulty breaking into the labour market. The second wave of interviews focused on labour market experiences. Eighty per cent of prime working-age immigrants found employment during their first two years in Canada, 42 per cent of them in their intended occupation.

The same database has been used to gauge other aspects of the immigrant experience and overall integration into Canadian society. In a nutshell, the data suggest immigrants are finding it increasingly difficult to get a footing in Canada. Eventually, most succeed, but it sometimes takes longer than it used to.

The immigration department responded to those findings by changing the point system used to select skilled workers, putting more emphasis on university education, language skills and work experience. Now Volpe wants to review those criteria, to make it easier for immigrants from the skilled trades to enter Canada.

Around the same time as the StatsCan report was released, the conservative Fraser Institute published a study by economist and former Reform party MP Herbert Grubel that challenges the conventional wisdom. Grubel contends that immigrants are draining billions of dollars from the Canadian “welfare state.”

Grubel puts a more dire spin on some of the same StatsCan data. He says immigrants should be allowed to enter Canada only with temporary work visas, which could be upgraded to permanent resident status only after the newcomers successfully establish themselves. In Grubel's world, those who don't hold down jobs would be deported.

On the face of it, his recommendations are pretty outlandish and unworkable. But, like bad journalism, bad research is sometimes based on a grain of truth.

Grubel's work taps into growing fears that Canada is allowing the creation of an immigrant underclass. Newcomers in this position never really manage to make a proper life for themselves but, instead, effectively mortgage their existence in hopes their children will do better.

I don't think that's the best way to run an immigration program, but we do need to figure out how to identify and tackle this problem. Before plunging into a massive increase in Canada's immigration levels, we need to seriously examine how the current system works, find the flaws and try to fix them.

And to do that, we need to figure out what the statistics really mean.

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Additional articles by Allan Thompson