Peter O’Neil, Vancouver Sun, September 27, 2010
A pillar of the Canadian establishment, brushing aside the risk he could become embroiled in one of the country’s most sensitive political issues, is endorsing a new organization challenging Canadian immigration policy.
Derek Burney is a former senior corporate chief executive, former ambassador to the U.S., one-time chief of staff to Brian Mulroney, and served as the head of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s transition team after the Conservatives won the 2006 election.
Canadian society, he said, needs to stop treating immigration as an untouchable “third rail” that can’t be debated without prompting allegations of bigotry.
So he’s joined the advisory board of an organization being launched Tuesday on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.
The Centre for Immigration Policy Reform will be headed by Martin Collacott, a former ambassador who writes frequently on immigration and refugee policy at the Fraser Institute, and James Bissett, a former director-general of the Canadian Immigration Service.
The new group argues the benefits of a high level of immigration aren’t worth costs that include considerable government expenditures and higher housing costs, pollution and crowding in big Canadian cities.
“Unfortunately immigration and refugee policy is a bit like health care in Canada,” Burney said in an interview.
“It’s being denied rational debate at the political level, and this is despite the very clear evidence of abuse of the system, of fraud in the system and a lack of coordination in the country in terms of screening.”
He says his major concern is that Canada’s economy has been chronically plagued by relatively low economic productivity, yet the large number of unskilled workers and family-class immigrants weakens productivity further.
Burney said politicians of all stripes refuse to discuss such concerns because some immigrant communities that lobby for high quotas of family-class immigrants are “very active” in federal politics.
Burney, 70, acknowledged he was courting controversy that could damage his legacy as a business executive and senior public servant who played a key role in the successful negotiation of the 1988 Canada-U. S. Free Trade Agreement.
He is an Order of Canada recipient, has several honorary degrees, and had a street named after him in his hometown of Thunder Bay, Ont.
In 2007-08, he was one of five members of Harper’s independent panel studying Canada’s future role in Afghanistan.
But he said he felt it was time to take a stand in support of Collacott and Bissett, who have argued in relative obscurity for years that Canadian immigration policy needs reform.
“It’s a third-rail kind of issue, nobody wants to talk about it, it’s not for polite company,” said Burney, now an adviser to the Ogilvy Renault law firm and formerly chief executive officer of Bell Canada International and later of the CAE Inc. aviation firm.
Collacott and Bissett “have a great deal of knowledge about the subject, and they’re not irrational, they’re not emotional, they’re not racists.
“They’re simply trying to acquaint Canadians with the facts.”
The Centre for Immigration Policy Reform is an organization dominated by academics and former senior bureaucrats, many with links to Canada’s conservative movement, who argue that immigration levels are far too high and that refugee screening policy too lax.
Canada has in recent years brought in roughly 250,000 immigrants and refugees annually, and since 1990 has accepted more per capita than any country in the world, according to the Fraser Institute.
There are also 300,000 or so skilled and unskilled “temporary” workers in Canada, of which 192,500 arrived in 2009. And the government admitted 79,500 foreign students last year.
The critics say Canada’s policy is essentially hijacked by self-interested groups–employer groups seeking cheap labour even when there’s high unemployment, lawyers, advocates and consultants in what they call the “immigration industry,” and urban MPs from all parties who depend on immigrant groups for political support.
They also cite statistics and reports, including several from federal government researchers, showing that Canadian immigrants since the 1980s have struggled economically compared with the average Canadian.
Others backing the new group include Gilles Paquet, a frequent public commentator and professor emeritus at the University of Ottawa’s Centre on Governance, and Salim Mansur, a University of Western Ontario political scientist, columnist, former federal candidate for the Canadian Alliance party under Stockwell Day’s leadership, and author of Islam’s Predicament: Perspectives of a Dissident Muslim.
Collacott said his group is trying to avoid, rather than import, what he calls the “xenophobic” hostility that exists today in Europe against immigrants and minorities. To do that, mainstream parties need to debate the issue openly, he said.
“While we’ve done better than the Europeans in terms of integrating immigrants into society, there are lots of signals that we’re not doing well enough,” Collacott told Postmedia.
Canadians need to debate the questions “without being called ant-immigrant and racist.”