Flood Of Immigrants Straining Canadian Cities

Flood of immigrants straining Canadian cities

Updated Tue. Dec. 4 2007 8:44 AM ET
The Canadian Press

TORONTO — Canada's three largest cities are struggling to cope with a flood of newcomers primarily from China, India, the Philippines and Pakistan as immigration approaches levels not seen since the end of the “Great Migration.''

Statistics Canada said Tuesday that 69 per cent of recent immigrants to Canada resided in the “magnet'' or “gateway'' cities of Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver — dubbed MTV — in 2006. That's down from 73 per cent in 2001 and 74 per cent in 1996.

Still, 97 per cent of all immigrants in the last five years ended up in large urban areas.

The flood of immigrants has resulted in the kind of vibrant, diversification celebrated as the essence of Canadian multiculturalism. But it has also created a nation of two solitudes: declining rural populations at the same time as bulging big cities struggle to provide services newcomers rely on.

Despite the enormous social, political and economic ramifications of immigration — forecast to be the single source of population growth in Canada within 30 years — public and political discourse on the subject seems muted.

“Canadians, according to surveys, think that there may be some major problems with immigration but they're constantly told that we need it anyway,'' said Martin Collacott, a former Canadian ambassador and now senior fellow with the Fraser Institute in Vancouver.

“You don't really question immigration because you'll be a racist if you do.''

Debatable policy issues include the number of immigrants Canada accepts along with the hundreds of millions of dollars spent each year helping them settle. There are also the issues of what kind of immigrant is allowed to enter — family class or skilled, for example, as well as where they should settle.

For politicians competing for the “ethnic'' vote in a country built on immigrants, those are thorny questions some would rather leave untouched.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the federal government floated the idea of directing new arrivals to the hinterland to address the issues of stressed urban services, immigrant concentration and rural depopulation.

The idea died a quiet death and has since been replaced by federal and provincial efforts to “encourage'' immigrants to settle in less-trafficked centres.

In 2006, only five per cent of the immigrant population lived in a rural area, Statistics Canada reported.

One innovation, said Tim Vail, spokesman for federal Immigration Minister Diane Finley, was the removal of a federal cap on how many newcomers provinces can accept, which has allowed smaller provinces to be more aggressive in recruiting immigrants on their own terms.

Setting aside constitutional concerns, experts say forcing immigrants to settle outside large urban centres simply doesn't work.

“It's not valuable. It's very clear: even if people say they're going to live in Lethbridge, Alta., or Saskatchewan, they pull up eventually and they move to where they think the jobs and where the families are,'' said Monica Boyd, a sociology professor at the University of Toronto who studied the subject.

“You cannot keep people in place very long if in fact they perceive the opportunities elsewhere.''

Quebec, which has enjoyed a large amount of autonomy in selecting its immigrants for the past 16 years, recorded its highest population of foreign-born in 2006 at 11.5 per cent of the population.

The province shifted to a more regionalized strategy about two years ago to ensure immigrants “establish themselves everywhere,'' said Yolande James, Quebec's immigration minister.

The approach relies on promoting the province's regions abroad and closely matching immigrant skills to available jobs on the premise that a happily employed newcomer is more likely to stay in place.

The strategy, which begins during the selection interview abroad, is starting to bear fruit.

The census shows that while 87 per cent of Quebec's foreign-born residents lived in Montreal there was also an increase in the number of immigrants settling in other areas, including Quebec City, Ottawa-Gatineau and Sherbrooke.

Amy Casipullai, policy co-ordinator of Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants, said immigration is no panacea for rural depopulation.

“If Canada doesn't deal with the problem of flight from small towns for the Canadian-born population, then how are you going to convince immigrants that this is actually a worthwhile move for them?'' Casipullai said.

Charles Cirtwill, acting president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, said smaller provinces should focus efforts on growing their existing immigrant bases.

“For example, here in Halifax we have a lot of Middle Eastern immigrants, so why are we spending so much time trying to draw a Chinese community here when we've already got a basis to build on?'' Cirtwill said.

Big cities complain they are left on the hook for providing the vital services that help immigrants feel at home — social housing; libraries; community, recreation and public-health programs and schools.

“We don't get a nickel from the federal government to support the kind of services that actually help people settle successfully in this city,'' said Toronto Mayor David Miller, where 46 per cent of the city's population was foreign-born in 2006.

” (But) if we don't properly support newcomers . . . there can well be problems.''

The complaint is similar in Vancouver.

“We lack the resources most of the time to be really proactive,'' said Baldwin Wong, a social planner with the city of Vancouver, where 40 per cent of all residents were born abroad and have a mother tongue other than English or French.

“We do have, for example, four multilingual phone lines — but that's only four language groups that we can address rather than the 60 or 70 different types of languages that are spoken in Vancouver schools.''

Ontario Immigration Minister Michael Chan said the province, which gets half the country's immigrants, spent about $160 million on services for newcomers last year although he complains that Ottawa has shortchanged the province in promised support.

Where in the province immigrants go is a “personal'' choice, Chan said.

The census shows 69 per cent of Ontario's foreign-born chose the Toronto area, with suburbs such as Brampton, Mississauga picking up an increasing amount of immigrants.

Experts say the bright lights of the metropolis are an irresistible lure for newcomers for two main reasons: economic diversity and social networks.

Newcomers to Montreal also cited language while those settling in Vancouver noted the climate, the census showed.

Many big-city schools, which are the point of entry into Canadian society for most immigrant children, are staggering under the weight of large numbers of students needing language training and other specialized guidance.

Marcel Tremblay, an executive member of Montreal's council, said the city wants immigrants to help bulk up its population, but the $1.5 million it gets from the province for services for newcomers is “peanuts.''

John Campey, executive director of the Community Social Planning Council of Toronto, said governments have made attracting immigrants a priority, but sadly not the money to support them.

“Investing in new arrivals in Canada has not been at the top of their list.''