OTTAWA — Canada is well on its way toward becoming a nation of immigrants — figuratively and literally.
While it's no secret that immigrants have helped build this country and Canada has long celebrated its rich multicultural history, 2011 census figures released Wednesday by Statistics Canada indicate two-thirds of overall population growth is being fuelled by newcomers.
Unlike the United States, where growth is still driven by natural increases in population — the difference between births and deaths — only one-third of Canada's growth is due to fertility.
It's a trend that's been going on for about a decade due to the rapid decrease in fertility that began in the late 1960s and 1970s and the increase in the number of deaths due to an aging population.
"As a result, the numbers of births and deaths have converged since the end of the Baby Boom in Canada, and migratory increase has taken on an increasingly important role in recent Canadian population growth," Statistics Canada's census report concluded.
Population projections suggest the trend will continue as boomers die off and that by 2031, immigration will account for more than 80 per cent of Canada's overall population growth.
"Without a sustained level of immigration or a substantial increase in fertility, Canada's population growth could, within 20 years, be close to zero," the report found.
With an immigration system that's placing a greater emphasis on temporary foreign workers and international students, combined with huge backlogs in applications for permanent residence and stricter citizenship requirements, it also raises questions about whether Canada may not just become a country of immigrants, but whether it may also become a country of non-Canadians.
While it's not clear exactly how many of the 33,476,688 people enumerated in the 2011 census are landed immigrants, refugees or people here on study or work permits, all are included in Canada's total population. All enjoy varying rights and privileges with respect to work, social programs such as health care and mobility, but none is eligible to vote in Canadian elections.
"Our immigration levels of 250,000 per year means that . . . we have a million new people in the country in less than five years," said Western (formerly the University of Western Ontario) sociology professor Rod Beaujot.
"The integration of this new population is a continuous challenge."
Nationally, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has identified immigration reform as a necessary prerequisite to building a stronger Canadian economy for the future. He has signalled the government will put a greater emphasis on accepting immigrants into Canada who have a particular skill that is needed in the workforce.
As new immigrants typically face disproportionately lower job participation, the hope is that newcomers will be able to hit the ground running and contribute more quickly to the country's coffers which are facing mounting pressures related to things such as rising pension and old age security costs.
Beaujot, however, said credentials, language deficiencies and mismatched skills that result in underemployment and unemployment remain serious barriers for newcomers, particularly in those early years.
Asked about the possibility of a Canada comprised of mostly non-Canadians, Rick Dykstra, the parliamentary secretary to Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, said the government is looking at ways to expedite the citizenship process, but is also being careful to ensure those who take the leap are worthy.
"If you're going to be a Canadian citizen, you have to treat it with the type of honour and dignity and respect that it deserves," he said.
"We think you should really have to achieve a high level of understanding of this country in terms of its history, what it's all about, to accept the values that we practise in this country, the democracy that we have and obviously the ability to be able to speak one of the official languages at a capacity that enables them to be able to interact with other Canadians," he said.
Meanwhile, Harpreet Rehlan and his wife, Ravinder Kaur, are emblematic of another trend over the last five years that has seen higher rates of immigrant-fuelled population growth outside Central Canada, particularly in the West.
The Delhi couple left their families and boarded a plane with plans to start a better life in Canada little more than two weeks ago.
Unlike the 84 per cent of East Indians who've made Ontario and British Columbia their home, this young couple chose to settle in Regina.
"I heard Regina is a good place to live," said Rehlan, who learned about the Prairie capital from a friend who is there on a work visa.
While they both have master's degrees, they came to Canada under the federal skilled worker program — Rehlan as an automotive technician and Kaur, as a school librarian.
They've already found an apartment, a decent curry restaurant, and Kaur has enrolled in English classes at a local immigration centre.
Rehlan said they've had several job interviews and he's optimistic about their future.
It appears, for good reason.
Saskatchewan recently reported some of the highest job vacancy rates in all of Canada and, according to the latest census figures, newcomers are flocking there like never before.
Since 2006, Saskatchewan welcomed nearly three times as many immigrants as it did in the previous five years, while the number of immigrants who settled in Manitoba doubled, according to Statistics Canada.
Meanwhile, Ontario — which was hit harder by the economic downturn and has struggled with an ailing manufacturing sector — saw 96,000 fewer immigrants settle in the province during the most recent census period.
"Immigrants are moving, like Canadians are moving, West because Saskatchewan and Alberta have lower unemployment rates . . . and economies that are doing relative well," said Susan McDaniel, a University of Lethbridge, Alta., sociology professor and director of the Prentice Institute for Global Population and Economy.
"People go where the jobs are. That's always been the case."
Growth in the oil and gas sector, the potash industry and high-tech fields are fuelling population spikes in places such as Saskatchewan, she said, adding Ontario, by contrast has seen "a huge hollowing out of the industrial base."
Prince Edward Island, another province that has embraced Citizenship and Immigration's provincial nominee program, which gives provinces and territories greater say over the selection of immigrants and has helped drive growth in smaller provinces, also has experienced a massive influx of newcomers with more than 8,100 settling there since 2006 compared to just 1,100 between 2001 and 2006.
But it's a trend that won't last, said Godfrey Baldacchino, a sociology professor and Canada Research Chair in Island Studies at the University of Prince Edward Island.
Much of the immigrant-fuelled Maritime population spike since 2006 — it occurred to a lesser extent in New Brunswick and in Nova Scotia — was due to abuse of the provincial nominee program, which is now under investigation in those provinces.
In a bid to attract wealthy immigrant investors, the provinces expedited the visa process and before long, allegations of bribery and corruption followed, along with scathing auditors general reports, lawsuits and police investigations.
Noting unemployment rates in P.E.I. are among the highest in the country, Baldacchino said there is already evidence that many of those immigrants who came through the program have since moved on to other parts of the country, in some cases, without ever even stepping foot in P.E.I.
"I think we've hit the maximum," he said. "The numbers will start going down."
University of Toronto demographer and economist David Foot said he can't understand why immigration remains so strong in Canada when unemployment is still so high. Given the large numbers of temporary foreign workers, he worries those who lose their jobs may not be leaving the country and that Canada may be creating an "illegal immigrant pool."
He also suggested Canadians need not fear population decline and that it may actually be good for both the economy and the environment.
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