Turn Off the Tap

James Bissett, Ottawa Citizen, March 16, 2010

Industry Minister Tony Clement has bemoaned the fact that Canada’s unemployment figures are at an “unacceptable level” and claims that job creation is a top priority of the federal government. If the minister is serious about this he might then well ask his colleague, Jason Kenny, the Immigration Minister, why our immigration levels are at such unprecedented high levels when there are 1.3 million men and women looking for work.

In the past two years while the country has been in the midst of a serious recession 483,000 immigrants entered Canada. In addition to the immigrants, in 2008 alone, 192,519 temporary foreign workers entered and joined the 170,975 who were already here–for an amazing total of 363,494. Why such high volumes if indeed the government is worried about job losses? Are ministers not aware that in the first year of recession Canada lost 486,000 full-time jobs and within the next few months 810,000 workers will run out of unemployment benefits?

In the past when Canada was entering into an economic downturn it was customary to turn the immigration tap off or at least to slow it down. The rationale was simple–what was the point in bringing to Canada immigrants who would find it difficult to find employment, and why make it more difficult for unemployed Canadians workers to get back to work?

However, for the past 20 years governments have set immigration levels extraordinarily high, aiming for about 250,000 per annum regardless of economic or labour force conditions. As the number of applications increased, an enormous backlog has piled up. In June of 2008 it was estimated to be between 900,000 and 950,000. Now it probably exceeds one million.

The staggering number of foreign temporary workers entering Canada is a direct result of the inability of visa officers overseas to deal with the high volume of immigration set by the government targets. Canadian employers trying to avoid lengthy immigration delays hire foreign temporary workers instead. They frequently engage agents abroad to select and recruit the workers.

Since many of these workers do not have to undergo normal criminal and security checks, they are able to get to Canada faster and avoid the backlog. Many of the workers are unskilled with poor language qualifications and it is known they pay agents large sums of money to be chosen for Canada. How many of them will eventually return home is an open question.

One of the serious consequences of reliance on temporary workers is the danger of falling into the same trap as many of the western European countries in the ’60s and ’70s when they lost control of their guest worker and asylum programs. These countries suddenly–but too late–realized they had inadvertently created a massive underclass residing in their major urban centres.

Studies have shown that the immigrants arriving since the early 1990s are not doing as well as those from earlier times. Many are living below the poverty line and immigrants between the ages of 25 and 54 have a much higher unemployment rate than the native born.

Only about 18 per cent of immigrants are selected by the federal government because they possess the skills, training or education needed to fill labour shortages. By far the greater numbers are selected because they are sponsored by relatives who are already in Canada or they are admitted for humanitarian reasons, are refugees, or are chosen by the provinces.

The reality is that for a number of years now the costs of immigration have exceeded the benefits and the long-range economic, social and environmental implications of continuing such high levels–especially during times of economic uncertainty–have not been taken into account by governments.

Our political representatives have a responsibility–if not a duty–to address important issues of public policy. It is high time they took a hard and intelligent look at our immigration policy and in a non-partisan fashion introduce measures to ensure that immigration serves the interests of Canada. This is not happening now, and now is not the time for our politicians to opt out.

James Bissett is former executive director of the Canadian Immigration Service.

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