|The English-speaking world. Countries in dark blue have a majority of native speakers. Countries in light blue have English as an official language, de jure or de facto. English is also one of the official languages of the European Union. "Official EU languages". European Commission. 8 May 2009 . . Retrieved 2009-10-16 . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
The Canadian government's plan to raise language fluency requirements for prospective skilled immigrants has some experts concerned that it may tilt migration patterns toward the English-speaking world.
Canada's immigration minister Jason Kenney said earlier this year that some immigration applicants will soon have to demonstrate high levels of English or French fluency to gain entry to Canada. The proposed new requirements would apply to the largest class of immigrants, the federal skilled worker category, which accounts for nearly 100,000 of the roughly 250,000 immigrants who come to Canada every year.
The decision is aimed at improving economic outcomes for immigrants in the country, which have been steadily declining over the last 30 years. Today a new immigrant earns only about 60% of the wages of a similarly educated Canadian-born citizen, compared with nearly 90% three decades ago. Meanwhile a flood of research has shown that language ability is one of the best predictors of rapid integration and economic success.
But Naomi Alboim, a public policy professor at Ontario's Queen's University and a former provincial deputy minister of citizenship, expects the policy will also have other consequences. The most striking will be a significant shift in source countries, she said. Alboim anticipates a decline in the number of migrants from China, for example, and a rise in the number from English-speaking countries.
Such a shift would make Canada's immigrant intake more similar to Australia's. The Australian government raised immigrant language requirements over the last decade and its immigrants have fared better economically than those in Canada. But Australia also receives proportionally larger numbers from English-speaking countries such as the UK, Ireland and New Zealand, who tend to integrate more quickly.
"A focus on language does make eminent sense. But I think we have to be careful about how high we are setting the bar and whether that is going to exclude a whole group of people who can contribute to a very significant degree with a little bit of assistance," Alboim said.
"We don't need to restrict our entire federal skilled worker intake to only those who have a high level of language, because that can develop over time."
Canada adopted a points-based immigration admission system in the 1960s to guard against any discrimination on the basis of race, religion or national origin, which had been shameful features of immigration policy in the past. Although it has awarded a certain number of points for language ability, it will now require that immigrants wishing to work in the professions demonstrate "fluency" on standardised tests. A slightly lower level would be required for those in skilled trades.
While anyone can, in theory, learn a language, English or French fluency is more common in some parts of the world and Canada may be taking a step, intentional or not, towards targeting source countries.
Debbie Douglas, executive director of the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants, fears that the new policy will screen out people from the global south. "We can't discriminate against folks who don't sound like us. That might mean more propping up of language teaching [for new immigrants] but that's a very small price to pay for helping people contribute to building our country," Douglas said.
"We have committed to a multicultural ethos. We've agreed that Canada is a diverse country, that it's one of our strengths, that it makes us stronger socially and economically."
Kenney has said it is hard to predict what impact the new language requirements might have on source countries, as they tend to ebb and flow for a variety of reasons, including global economic conditions as well as selection criteria. His goal is to create a more flexible language grid that will contribute to improving the economic fortunes of those who are selected.
At the moment the federal government does not do much recruiting of immigrants, since it already receives many more applications than it can accept in a year. But provinces, employers and post-secondary institutions can and do target newcomers independently. For regions that struggle to attract immigrants, targeting has become an important way of encouraging population growth.
The premier of Saskatchewan recently flew to Ireland to encourage unemployed Irish young people to embark for the booming prairies. And neighbouring Manitoba takes aim at groups it believes will settle comfortably in the notoriously cold province. Recently Manitoba has turned to Ukraine, a major source country a hundred years ago, to find people to settle rural areas.
While an emphasis on language might produce better economic outcomes for immigrants in the short term, it could also have other effects. Canada may struggle to find enough people with sufficient levels of fluency to maintain its very high immigration levels, for example. A sudden shift in the attainability of immigration may have an impact on Canada's ties to a country such as China and studies have shown that trade ties increase through immigration.
Howard Ramos, a sociologist at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, says statistics show the overwhelming majority of immigrants are able to speak one of Canada's official languages.
"The history of immigration has shown a high degree of language integration over time. So I'm not entirely sure the concern being raised is necessarily warranted," Ramos said.
"The points system was introduced to correct the injustices of focusing on culture and language too heavily. It was a society and a time that was much more ethnocentric. I don't think it's a time we should try and return to."