Saturday, November 19, 2011

Canada needs increased, not steady, immigration levels


By Robert Vineberg, Research Fellow     
On November 1, the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, Jason Kenney, tabled the 2011 Annual Report to Parliament on Immigration. 
 In it, he announced that the target levels for immigration in 2012 will remain steady in a range of 240,000 to 265,000.
If a Canada with a much smaller population base could absorb 250,000 immigrants per year during the economic ups and downs of the 1990s, it is more than likely that the Canada of 2012 can easily welcome a significantly greater number of immigrants each year. The reality is that our labour market and our economy need more immigrants.
A government that purports to support immigration should stop talking about the obstacles to admitting the increasing number of immigrants that Canada needs and start talking about how to make the policy changes necessary to responsibly increase Canada’s annual immigration intake.
Since the early 1990s, immigration levels have remained remarkably steady in the 250,000 per year range. In 1993, Canada had a population of 28.7 million, so immigration of 250,000 amounted to 0.87% of Canada’s population. Stephen Harper’s Conservative government has continued to maintain immigration levels at about 250,000. Only in 2010, for a variety of reasons, did the number of immigrants exceed the target range and reach 280,000.
During this period, the most striking change in the composition of the immigrant categories has been the introduction and rapid growth of the Provincial Nominee Program (PNP). As the 2011 Annual Report to Parliament on Immigration states, “The Provincial Nominee Program provides participating provinces and territories with a mechanism to respond to their particular economic needs, by allowing them to nominate individuals who will meet specific local labour market demands.”
The program was introduced in 1998 and, by 2010, it accounted for over 36,000 immigrants. Most of these immigrants have been destined for areas outside of the three biggest cities, helping substantially to redress the regional imbalance of immigration within the country. For example, immigration to the three prairie provinces has grown from less than 20,000 to over 56,000 in this time, largely due to the PNP. However, because overall immigration levels have not increased, this growth has come at the expense of other immigration categories.
The growth of the PNP has forced the federal government to reduce its target for federally selected skilled workers and, while its agreements with the provinces allow the provinces to set their own levels for provincial nominees, Citizenship and Immigration Canada quietly informed the provinces that they would not process higher numbers of provincial nominees in future years.
The ostensible reason for this cap on the PNP is to ensure adequate room within the 2012 levels range of 240,000 to 265,000 for federally-selected immigrants and the family class consisting of sponsored relatives. Not surprisingly, many provinces have expressed dismay at this unilateral federal decision in contravention, in their view, of the agreements that the federal government signed with them.
This concern over “space” for federally selected immigrants is spurious. The problem lies in the fact that since 1993, the overall levels have remained the same. In 2011, with the same general immigration target as almost two decades ago and a Canadian population that has grown by almost 6 million to 34.5 million, annual immigration now only amounts to 0.72% of Canada’s population.
Ironically, the number of immigrants Canada is accepting as a proportion of its population is falling precisely when native-born population and labour force growth is stagnating.
It is time for the government and Parliament to consider increasing immigration levels.
Most provinces, and particularly the western provinces, want to grow their population and see increased immigration as a major way to do so. The way to expand the federal immigration streams is not to freeze growth in provincial programs, but to increase overall levels during the next several years. An increase in immigration levels by 50,000 to 300,000 per year would bring the ratio back to the 0.87% figure of two decades ago. An increase of 100,000 to 350,000 per year would see Canada finally achieve the one percent per year goal that all parties were advocating two decades ago.
Either scenario would provide lots of space for growth in provincial immigration programs as well as the admission of more federally-selected workers and sponsored parents and grandparents.
Robert Vineberg is a Research Fellow at the Canada West Foundation.