This article originally appeared in the Montreal Gazette.
By Aaron Wudrick, March 6, 2023
Much has been written recently on rising concerns about Canadian immigration levels, and specifically the Trudeau government’s announcement of significantly higher immigration targets. As commentators have noted, Canada has historically had cross-party consensus on immigration that can be legitimately described as a uniquely Canadian phenomenon.
This good news has been a point of Canadian pride (or smugness) in a time of global political turbulence, given that in many of our peer countries, immigration backlash has manifested itself in sometimes ugly and xenophobic ways.
But here’s the bad news: This consensus is at risk, and may already be little more than a mirage. It’s consoling that immigration skepticism has not coalesced around any single political party, where it could become a political wedge issue. But fraying support for immigration across party lines exposes an even greater risk: that the issue will be ignored by all parties until it reaches a dangerous boiling point.
Part of the challenge is that Canadians concerned about immigration are often afraid to say so out loud for fear of being called racist or xenophobic. And to be clear, there are racist and xenophobic Canadians, as in every country. But it would be a colossal mistake for our political class to wave away any misgivings about our immigration policy as mere prejudice.
Politicians must understand some of the factors that stoke concerns with our policies and targets. Start with the Roxham Road border crossing between New York State and Quebec, where unlawful (irregular) refugee crossings have skyrocketed in recent years. Recently, news broke that New York City is paying for bus tickets to help asylum-seekers reach the border.
Roxham Road matters because it is about fairness. It represents a legal loophole that people are exploiting. Refugees are a legitimate humanitarian issue, but allowing a class of people to essentially “skip the line” will undermine support for a rules-based system that the public can believe is fair to all.
Second, for many Canadians the concern is not who is coming, so much as how many: for a population already dealing with serious supply strains, immigrants represent a demand spike that will only worsen the situation. Housing is an obvious example; so is access to health care. Just ask the six million Canadians who cannot find a family doctor.
Some argue, fairly, that new immigrants actually represent part of the solution to these supply challenges, providing much-needed additional labour, from construction workers to nurses and doctors. But such tangible factors are not used to inform government immigration targets, which smack of central planning. Perhaps it’s time we shifted away from immigration by fiat and adopted a more market-based approach.
Consider the relative success of refugees to Canada based on their path of entry. Experience shows that privately sponsored Syrian refugees have a better chance of finding employment than those brought in under government programs. This suggests that when migrants have non-government partners invested in their success, their integration into Canadian society is likely to go more smoothly.
While humanitarian refugees require sponsorship and charity from individual Canadians and communities, for many economic immigrants the relevant invested partner will be employers who, given labour supply challenges, are often among the loudest champions of high immigration levels.
Here, too, a legitimate criticism is often raised, since efforts by employers to create cheap pools of labour can drive down wages for all Canadians. But this blurs the immigration discussion with a separate issue: the difference between employers unwilling to pay higher salaries, and those who simply cannot find job candidates at any economically viable salary level.
Canada’s immigration consensus has served our country well for half a century. If we are to salvage it, we will need to listen to those with legitimate concerns about high immigration rates — and more importantly, adjust our approach away from government targets towards a system that prioritizes matching our supply of and demand for immigrants and refugees as smoothly as possible.
Aaron Wudrick is Director of the domestic policy program at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.