November 17, 2005: Volpe's Stories Don't Fit The Facts (By James Travers in The Toronto Star)
Volpe's stories don't fit the facts
Nov. 17, 2005. 09:39 AM
OTTAWAWith a winter election looming and Liberals desperate to hold the ethnic vote, Immigration Minister Joe Volpe is telling fanciful stories about the success of immigrants that just don't fit the facts. Volpe, who also happens to be Paul Martin's Ontario political boss, is promoting the notions that new arrivals are doing rather well and that Canada is ready to throw its doors open to a swelling new crowd.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Documents circulating through select government departments and obtained by the Star reveal disturbing results suggesting a ruling party concerned more with national interests than electoral advantage would put immigration increases on hold.
Research by his own department blows a gaping hole in Volpe's claim that within five years those who choose this country match the economic performance of their Canadian peers. The grim statistical fact is that it now takes more than 10 years to catch up, and some new immigrants, particularly those in the most politically sensitive family reunification class, are too often left behind forever.
Worse still, the newest Canadians are driving big-city despair. In Toronto, immigrants increased poverty levels by nearly 3 per cent, reversing all gains made by non-immigrants, a pattern repeating in Montreal and Vancouver.
No matter what Volpe claims, the bottom line is that in major urban centres, the ones that attract most new arrivals, low-income rates rose between 1990 and 2000 for one big reason increases in immigrant poverty. Across the country, more than 35 per cent of those who had lived here five years or less by 2000 were earning low incomes.
There's much, much more and it doesn't get better. Overall, immigrants are less likely to be consistently employed, enjoy the protective benefits of unionized labour or be well paid.
In a single negative measure, researchers capture the scope of the problem as well as the challenge for a country that increasingly must look offshore to meet skills shortages and stabilize a population battling low birth rates. Since 1980 the percentage of dirt-poor immigrants has risen from about the national average of 17 per cent to over 20 per cent, while the trend for non-immigrants is happily tracking down to 14.3 per cent.
If it weren't for politics, Volpe's peculiar policies and pronouncements would be baffling. In April, he announced Ottawa would triple the acceptance of parents and grandparents, one of the most politically attractive but worst performing groups, and then in a series of media leaks promoted what was expected to be a well-received 40 per cent jump in overall immigration.
Most remarkable is Volpe's reference to studies that show new immigrants make a slower economic start than native-born Canadians, “but after five years they do catch up and surpass them.”
There's been a lot of backtracking since the minister astonished experts with that claim, as well as his plan to pump more people into an already overflowing pipeline. Stephen Heckbert, Volpe's communications chief, now says the minister was referring only to the most successful economic immigrant group and that the current priority isn't to increase levels from about 235,000 to 328,000 annually but to fix the system.
This week's pre-election mini-budget promises $1.3 billion over five years to support resettlement programs now falling far short. But internal documents make it clear Liberals are throwing money at a problem the government doesn't fully understand.
Questions about why immigrants fare so poorly outstrip answers. Equally worrying, there is no reason to believe that Ottawa has any immediate hope of matching applicant skills to labour market demands or channelling immigrants to regions that current residents are abandoning.
What this country needs is a thoughtful policy overhaul, not a sudden influx of immigrants whose great expectations are certain to crash headlong into the harsh realities of unrecognized credentials, low incomes and a future as part of an entrenched urban underclass.
To bring people here with empty promises is cruel. Canada needs new immigrants but they must be able to contribute more than keeping wages low and re-electing Liberals who lean on them to control hotly contested candidate nominations and win constituencies with high ethnic concentration.
If that seems too cynical to be credible, consider this: Liberals in the '90s made the politically popular decision to increase family immigrants and throw millions at the backlog while knowing that group lags economically and strains hard-pressed social services.
Volpe's stories are so out of whack with his department's research and Canadian realities that voters should be putting tough questions to Paul Martin. A good first query would be why he gave one minister two jobs that should be kept far apart immigration and political responsibility for Ontario, the province Liberals must hold to keep power? Then they could demand that the federal government designs and debates a strategy with a reasonable chance of again making Canada a promised land.
Anything less is just a fantasy with real-life power to ruin lives.