Why Is No One Talking About Immigration?

Why is no one talking about immigration?

The Globe And Mail
September 22, 2008 at 12:32 AM EDT

Here we go again. Another Canadian election where, for fear of the bigot label, there'll be no honest debate on immigration.

Talking about the downsides of immigration is something the people – but not the politicians – do. In this campaign, all parties favour higher immigration numbers.

It's not only politically correct but also seen to be politically beneficial. That's a powerful combination. But it results in public concerns being ignored – hot-button issues such as whether immigration results in increased crime and increased unemployment and whether it's leading to declining social standards.

While most politicians won't touch this stuff with a barge poll, one man daring to do so is James Bissett, a former bureaucrat and diplomat (he was Canada's ambassador to Yugoslavia in the early 1990s). Mr. Bissett was a member of a four-member task force in the 1960s that developed Canada's immigration points system. He later became executive director of the Canadian Immigration Service. He has a son married to a black woman and a daughter married to a Cuban.

Our politicians, he said in an interview, ignore the realities. We're heading into a downward economic spiral. There's a backlog of nearly a million applicants waiting to get in. More than half of recent immigrants are already living below the poverty line. The social costs, the costs to the treasury, are already imposing. Is this the time, he asks, to be calling for major increases in immigrant numbers? The Liberals and NDP are gung-ho, the Conservatives want only a modest jump in the 250,000 who come to Canada annually.

Mr. Bissett was in a recent TV debate with NDP immigration critic Olivia Chow. Things got heated. Look, you're supposed to be a socialist, Mr. Bissett told her as they exited the set, and you want to bring in 330,000 to undercut Canadian unions and workers' wages? She wasn't amused.

Mr. Bissett has, you might say, a rather cynical view of multiculturalism. In the old days, he explained, politicians used party funds to buy ethnic votes. But, in the 1970s, he said, they decided the taxpayers should pay. They institutionalized multiculturalism. They set up a multiculturalism department with a big budget, and the big budget was used to bribe ethnic voters. On their annual national days, they get subsidies for their ethnic newspapers and so on.

He cited a study showing that the 2.5 million immigrants who arrived in Canada between 1990 and 2002 received $18-billion more in government services and benefits than they paid in taxes.

You hear a lot of grumbling at cocktail parties, but, he noted, people don't speak out openly about the social and economic costs for fear of being labelled racist. Toronto and Vancouver are on their way to becoming Asian cities, Mr. Bissett said. That may be fine, but let's talk about it. Or are we just going to kind of go sleepwalking into the 21st century?

In the election campaign, the Liberals have promised to invest $800-million to deal with the immigration backlog. The Conservatives, who have been currying favour with ethnic groups since taking office, brought in a reform in the spring – one that Mr. Bissett supports – that restores the power of government to regulate the numbers and deal with the backlog.

Under the original formula Mr. Bissett helped to set up, occupational demand in Canada was a key criterion for getting in. But that proviso was dropped in 2001 – and helped create today's huge backlog.

Because of the aging population, the Liberals contend that immigration will account for all of Canada's new labour and population growth during the next five years. Citing examples such as Finland and Japan where labour forces are declining, Mr. Bissett maintains that a larger labour force doesn't mean higher living standards.

Many have an old-fashioned romantic idea of immigration, he said, but this is a different world. You don't go out to the Prairies and make sod huts for the winter and plant seeds for the summer. He agrees Canada has a humanitarian role to play, but his view is that it is better done through greatly increased foreign aid than adding 300,000 job seekers annually in difficult times.

Mr. Bissett's view of immigration is a harsh one. But he has the courage to air what a lot of people are thinking. The issue speaks too much to the future of the country for there to be silence.