November 4, 2005: Increased Immigration Targets? Not So Fast (By Martin Collacott in The Globe and Mail-Electronic Edition)
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Web-exclusive commentMartin Collacott
Increased immigration targets? Not so fast
By MARTIN COLLACOTT
Friday, November 4, 2005 Posted at 1:49 AM EST
Special to Globe and Mail Update
John Ibbitson's new book, The Polite Revolution: Perfecting the National Dream, strongly advocates increasing the intake of newcomers. Indeed, maintaining high levels of immigration is critical in Mr. Ibbitson's view if we are to ensure Canada's continued economic success. Most of the arguments he uses to support this thesis are very similar to those advanced by Ottawa in support of its recently announced intention to increase immigration by 40 per cent.
Are the premises of this case valid? It is often said that our economic progress depends on population growth. Research shows, however, that there is no correlation whatsoever between population growth and prosperity. While in the past there were benefits to be derived from having a large population and being able to achieve economies of scale, this no longer applies to countries such as Canada.
With globalization, the world is now our marketplace. Economic well-being depends on increases in productivity, effective use of the work force and good economic policies in general. If population size and continued growth were the key to success, Singapore and Switzerland would be basket cases.
The argument is also made that immigration is crucial to Canada's future – because our population is aging, we need newcomers to support an increasing proportion of older people. It's quite correct to state that the population is aging – but it's wrong to claim immigration can solve problems associated with it.
A host of reports and studies, including those of Statistics Canada, the United Nations' Population Division and the Conference Board of Canada, leaves no doubt that immigration does not offer a means of offsetting the aging of the population unless carried out at astronomical and totally impractical levels.
The reasons for this are simple: After their arrival in Canada, newcomers not only grow old just like people born here but also have fertility rates no greater than Canadians.
What then of the argument that we need immigrants to meet our labour shortages? While it is certainly true that we have gaps in some sectors that may have to be filled by newcomers in the short to medium term (doctors, for example), it is not true that we have a general labour shortage.
Yes, there will be a need for more skilled workers in the construction industry for as long as the current boom continues and in the developing energy sector for some time to come. But does this lead only to the argument that Canada must depend on immigration rather than looking first to the development of Canadian talent to meet such needs?
Observers such as Mr. Ibbitson are critical of government policies that encourage large numbers of workers in the Maritimes to stay on the dole for much of the year. It's also often noted that a major part of the aboriginal population will move to urban areas to seek regular employment in the years ahead. Why, then, do we not make an all-out effort to fill our labour needs from our own resources rather than giving priority to bringing in people from abroad?
We must also take a critical look not only at how many immigrants we really need but what the current intake is costing Canadians. Recent immigrants have substantially lower earnings and higher rates of poverty than either those who came earlier or Canadian-born. The cost of bringing in people in such circumstances is by no means insignificant. In a recent Fraser Institute paper, economist Herbert Grubel estimated that, in 2002, immigrants who entered Canada between 1990 and 2002 received $18.3-billion more in benefits than they paid in taxes.
As for claims that Canada will be left high and dry by a demographic drought as our population stops growing and starts to decline, a reality check is in order. According to Statistics Canada projections, even without any net immigration whatsoever and in an absence of an increase in fertility rates, our population will continue growing until 2018. It will then decline slowly – but only by 200,000 after eight more years. This will still leave us with more people two decades from now than we have at present.
In the event we do conclude we need more immigrants at that time, it is difficult to see why we should have trouble attracting them if there are still suitable people in other countries looking for greener pastures and we can offer adequate incentives to get them to come here. Meantime, it makes little sense to keep bringing in large numbers of people, many of whom our economy doesn't really need, many of whom cannot find suitable jobs and who are placing a major burden on Canadian taxpayers.
An examination of these pro-immigration arguments is important because many of the points discussed above have also been put forth by Immigration Minister Joe Volpe and his colleagues in an effort to justify the major increase in immigration they recently announced.
While some of those who urge increased immigration are “true believers” in high immigration levels and the benefits of increasing and unlimited diversity for Canadian society, Ottawa's motives are clearly of a different order. The government hopes that an increase in intake will shore up political support in the next election among immigrant groups in a number of urban ridings no matter what the costs to the population as a whole.
Canadians should take note.
Martin Collacott, who lives in Vancouver, has served as ambassador in a number of countries in Asia and the Middle East.