Monday, March 5, 2012

Olive: Skills shortage highlights faulty thinking on immigration


By David OliveBusiness Columnist

In most parts of the world, the voices sound alike. And that’s not ideal. Canada’s traditional open-door immigration policy is arguably the greatest factor in Canada’s consistently high ranking among the U.N.’s best places to live.One of the reasons I don’t have an iPod is that I like to hear ambient sounds, especially the voices around me. I try to guess Chinese dialects, and from which part of Texas that woman hails from. That man with the turban and the laptop chatting with the woman next to him on the subway, is he a scientist or an entrepreneur?
New arrivals built and build this world’s most nearly-perfect country, from the one Chinese worker who died for every mile of the CPR that was built, to the Jews so prominent in the GTA’s philanthropic network.
Like the Italian émigrés who moved on and up after building our houses and highways, Korean families are now giving way to Iranians and Iraqis in the convenience-store trade.
That Canada’s prudent Big Five banks came through the global financial meltdown with flying colours owes much to their Scottish roots.
We cannot ever properly atone for the head tax we imposed on Chinese in Canada, for incarcerating Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War, for failing to rescue Jews from Nazi extermination. That is our original sin, bound up with chronic mistreatment of our aboriginal population.
The economic blessings of immigration cannot be exaggerated, though the current federal government seems unmindful of that.
Canada has emerged from economic recovery to pre-recession growth rates faster than any of its industrialized peers. But our greater prosperity is held back by shortages of skilled workers in practically every region and vocation. Yet Ottawa has cut the inflow of immigrants from an annual 250,000 to 225,000, trapped by a recession-era mindset that is obsolete.
Yes, we have an intolerably high number of unemployed Canadians.
More than 1.4 million of us are out of work. In the main, these fellow Canadians do not yet have the skills required of a 21st century economy driven by brains rather than brawn. That can be remedied by ensuring that specialized vocational education is accessible (read affordable) to all Canadians who want to be contributors.
The scourge of the credentialed Pakistani heart surgeon relegated to driving cab remains plainly evident on GTA streets. Yet Ottawa has slashed its funding of immigrant settlement services for Ontario by $70 million.
And both Ottawa and Queen’s Park haven’t even tried to break the retrograde guild-like practices of professional credentialing groups that function to keep supply low and incomes high by disqualifying the qualified from practice.
Instead, Ottawa is “cracking down” (a favoured pastime of the Harper government) on immigrant marriages of convenience. While marriage fraud certainly exists, tackling it with the gusto of Stephen Harper’s government misses the big picture.
The big picture is that the industrialized world will soon begin to shrink in population. It is an iron law of demographics, in all societies, that procreation declines as affluence rises.
Already Japan’s population has begun to shrink. Russia’s population is in steep decline. The trend will sweep across Western Europe, where populations in Britain, France, Germany and so on will soon plateau, then begin to fall. The prosperity and influence of those regions will drop accordingly.
Only America, where high fertility rates among the 25 per cent of Americans who are black or Hispanic, will see continued population growth. And it will be significant growth – a projected 40 per cent jump by mid-century. At which point Americans of non-European heritage will for the first time be in the majority.
As a matter of competitive necessity, Canada cannot afford to be left on the sidelines in that stunning U.S. success story of population growth and the greater cultural and intellectual diversity that comes with it.
Our own population is projected to increase, a demographic blessing we share only with the U.S. among mature economies. But it will increase by a modest annual 2 per cent or so over the next decade. We need more new arrivals, and the work ethic, innovative and entrepreneurial instincts, and patriotism for their adopted homelands that they bring.
Given the Ontario Liberal government’s near-panic over its current 30-year-low in share of new immigrants to Canada, and the task force it called into action last Friday to deal with the crisis, one could too easily conclude that the Liberals are traditionally pro-immigration and the Tories less so.
Yet the first, relentless appeal to potential immigrants was made by John A. Macdonald. Real Tories are pro-immigration. Purported converts from the nativist Reform Party, not so much. And it shows.