Canada faces big questions about the future of immigration

Alia Dharssi
More from Alia Dharssi

Published on: September 14, 2016

This is an introduction to Alia Dharssi’s series, Workers Without Borders. 

Canada’s immigration policy is at a crossroads.

As other countries turn away refugees or have divisive debates on limiting newcomers, Canadians will welcome as many as 300,000 immigrants to the country this year, up from a cap of 285,000 in 2015. 

Immigration Minister John McCallum, who is fresh off of a Canada-wide summer consultation on immigration policy, is looking to boost that number even higher next year. 

We are in need of new blood because Canadians aren’t having enough babies,” he said in Calgary in August. 

The labour force growth depends very much on the entrance of immigrants.”

At the same time, the Liberal government is looking to overhaul many parts of the immigration system, from the controversial Temporary Foreign Worker Program to how skilled immigrants get into the country.  

A  key focus  is “breaking down the barriers so we can have the ability to seek out the best and brightest,” said McCallum over the summer in Ottawa. 

The government’s current review, which is expected to lead to policy changes within months, comes on the heels of dramatic changes by the former Harper government to almost every aspect of immigration policy.

A year-long Postmedia investigation shows the consequences of current policies range from a spurt in the number of temporary foreign workers overstaying their four-year limit – and an ensuing growth in the underground economy – to constraints on how wealthy immigrants interested in investing in Canadian businesses can settle in the country.

Immigration policy is this complicated technical area where we get sucked down into the program details all the time,” said Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel.  

I think we do have to have a larger conversation around what the bigger vision is.”

As Canada has taken in a growing number of migrant workers and international students, the number of people living in the country on temporary visas has grown by the thousands in the last 15 years. Many hope to stay, but don’t get the chance.

It’s a big change from decades past, when it was more common for people to enter as permanent residents, according to analysis by Toronto sociologists Luin Goldring and Patricia Landolt. 

Many of these temporary workers, from software engineers in Vancouver to meat packers in rural Alberta, fill significant jobs for the Canadian economy. 

With the government set to table a review of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program this fall, along with possible reforms to help businesses facing labour shortages, parliamentarians must not lose sight of Canadians, said Rempel, a Calgary MP. 

There’s a lot of people – Canadians – that should be given a first kick at those jobs on either the high skill side or the low skill side.” 

In the face of complaints about companies overusing or abusing the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, the previous government limited how long these workers could stay and how many businesses can hire. 

But the policies have seen thousands of temporary workers in low-paying industries move underground, say researchers and workers.

I’m working for my family,” explained Jose Osano, a migrant worker deported in May. He overstayed his visa in hopes of obtaining a new work permit, so he could keep remitting money to his children and wife in the Philippines.

The moves also imposed significant losses on employers who say they haven’t been able to hire enough workers to fill voids created by the limits. 

It was gut-wrenching,” said Susan McBride, director of human resources at Highline Mushrooms in Ontario, after a rule forced the company to lay off harvesters with as much as eight years’ experience.

It lowered morale and affected the bottom line, with many mushrooms being sent to the cannery because they weren’t picked well enough to be sold raw, she said. 

Often, companies that hire temporary workers, including signature Canadian brands like Maple Leaf Foods, don’t want them to leave.

When they can, they transition them to permanent residency through provincial immigration programs.

Now, several “low-skilled” industries, such as lobster plants and mushroom farms, are asking the federal government to make it easier for their workers to stay.  

Just because a job doesn’t require a university degree doesn’t mean the people who do it aren’t bringing value to the Canadian economy, they say.  

Ottawa’s intense focus on bringing in the “best and brightest” made much more sense in the 1970s when fewer Canadians went to university and there were “real shortages in skilled areas,” said Robert Vineberg, former director general of Citizenship and Immigration Canada for the Prairies and Northern Territories.

We really have to have a fundamental rethink of where the Canadian labour market is going,” he said.  

The Trudeau government has signalled changes are coming, with McCallum stating as recently as Sunday that he supports paths to permanent residency for migrant workers, but it’s unclear how far-reaching the moves will be. 

Ottawa also faces questions about how effective immigration policies are towards assisting the Canadian economy and immigrants themselves. 

Academic studies show many talented newcomers, ranging from doctors to accountants, are struggling to become accredited in Canada and find jobs in their field even after the government poured millions into improving the system. 

Many move to the United States because making it in Canada is simply too hard.

The Liberal government has said it plans to hold a meeting with the provinces to tackle the issue. 

Another key concern for the Trudeau government is how to spread immigrants to small cities and rural areas that say they need more people. 

 More than three-quarters of newcomers land in just seven large cities.

Employers in small centres across Canada and local officials have taken matters into their own hands, travelling abroad to job fairs and using other strategies to recruit immigrants directly. 

Once you become a permanent resident, you have a constitutional right to live wherever in Canada you want,” said McCallum. “So we have to find ways to induce the immigrants to go where they are most needed.” 

But many small communities complain the immigration system does a poor job of supporting them. 

Immigration laws are concentrating on what the big centres need and absorb,” said Adele Dyck, an immigration consultant in Winkler, Man., a city of 12,000 that has launched a string of successful initiatives to bring newcomers to the community.  

From overhauling the Temporary Foreign Worker Program to boosting Canada’s intake of immigrants, many groups will be carefully watching how the Liberal government decides to balance the immigration system when Parliament opens on Monday.  

 Join the conversation on Twitter #workerswithoutborders

Read more from Postmedia’s Workers Without Borders series: 

How the temporary foreign worker program is shaping Canada’s underground economy
Desperate Canadian businesses seek changes to temporary foreign worker program
The murky world of the agencies that recruit temporary foreign workers
Skilled immigrants wasting their talents in Canada
Finding the right formula for business immigration
How small Manitoba cities are hand picking their immigrants