Ontario immigration hobbled by Ottawa

, National Post · Feb. 17, 2012 | Last Updated: Feb. 17, 2012 3:06 AM ET
Attacking Dalton McGuinty's Liberals is a waste of time - they've done such a good job themselves. Still, when it comes to making a mess of Ontario's finances, they've had some help from Ottawa.
Take immigration policy. As the Drummond report on reforming Ontario's public services makes clear, the federal government's immigration programs have undermined Mr. McGuinty's attempts to attract skilled workers to his province, in favour of guiding them westward.
The report, released Wednesday, emphasizes how important immigration is to Ontario - it will account for all net growth in the working age population in the forseeable future. Ontario is still the top destination for immigrants to Canada. Yet that dominance is slipping - in 2010, Ontario's share of new immigrants was 52%, down from 64% just five years before.
More worryingly for Mr. McGuinty is the mix of those immigrants - a high number of refugees and family-class migrants, and fewer skilled workers.
The province has long received the majority of refugees who arrive in Canada - 65% in 2010. This costs Ontario taxpayers millions, since they are not eligible for federally funded services until their claims are settled.
At the same time, Ontario is receiving fewer of the skilled workers needed to help drag the province out of its fiscal funk.
For years, the federal skilled worker (FSW) program was geared toward making Ontario the destination of choice for the high-priority migrants everyone wanted to attract. In 2001, Ontario attracted 89,078 workers through the FSW program; in 2010, that number was just 53,885.
This hasn't happened just because new arrivals decide they prefer the prospect of Regina in January over what is laughingly referred to as winter in Toronto. It has happened because the federal government has introduced new rules to ensure a flow of skilled workers heads to the resourcerich Western provinces.
A quick scan down the list of the 29 job descriptions prized by Ottawa as the skilled occupations Canada needs, confirms why those workers are not coming to Ontario - the requirement is for mining engineers, geological engineers, petroleum engineers and so on. The Conservative government has put a cap on the number of skilled workers coming into Canada, in order to clear a six-year backlog, but Ontario's fiscal situation is so dire that the feds should level the playing field - or even tilt it in the province's favour.
Before anyone begins howling that no province should be given special treatment, consider that Quebec receives nearly double the rest of Canada when it comes to immigrant settlement and language services - $5,800 per head, compared to $3,200 in the rest of Canada.
In addition, British Columbia and Manitoba have been granted devolved powers when it comes to designing and administering their settlement and language programs - powers for which Ontario has long lobbied. As the Drummond report concluded: "Ontario should push for greater policy control and full funding support for immigrant settlement. This will allow the province to reduce duplication and help immigrants get services they need, when they need them."
Another policy initiative where Ontario is at a disadvantage is the provincial nominee program that allows provinces to directly recruit workers to their province, at which point the feds fast-track the application. Ontario has come late to this party and has been allocated just 1,000 spots, compared to 5,000 or so for Manitoba. "Expanding the provincial nominee program could help the province partially offset the recent decline in the number of economic migrants," the Drummond report concluded.
Jason Kenney, the Immigration Minister, threw Mr. McGuinty a bone Thursday, by introducing refugee reforms that should save the province an estimated $1-billion over five years, by reducing the time that bogus refugee claimants from countries in the European Union are able to game the Canadian system. The new rules should knock two and half years off the time claimants are able to claim provincially funded social benefits.
But Mr. Kenney could do more. The sheer size of the province means that as goes Ontario, so goes the nation. The jobs are few and far between at the moment, but labour shortages will start to appear as the Boomers start retiring. Ontario needs once again to become a magnet for the best migrants the world has to offer, and the federal government has a role to play in making that happen.

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