Statistics confirm that Canada's current net labour market growth is predominantly dependent on immigration. It appears almost certain that by 2030 Canada will be entirely reliant on immigration for population growth.
However, the latest policy pronouncements of Jason Kenney, Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, suggests new obstacles blocking Canada's future economic successes are in the works. Despite some notable improvements in the system under Kenney, the most recent initiatives are guaranteed to permanently harm our country's international reputation. Here is why.
First, he claims to be repairing the current dysfunctional immigration system, including clearing up the most controversial problem, namely the existing backlog of 300,000 applicants under the Federal Skilled Worker Program. The Minister's stated goal is to implement a new system that, by 2018, would feature a "made in Canada" international database of pre-screened, employment credentialled candidates suitable to apply for admission to Canada.
Since 2008, the department's policy objective has been to shift from admitting applicants to Canada without a sponsoring employer, and toward an employer-driven immigration program. The direction was right. But now the government is backpedalling on its promises. The plan, announced in the recent federal budget, is to vaporize the existing backlog of skilled worker applicants by refusing the majority of applications filed prior to February 2008.
Forcing applicants to wait close to 10 years and then implementing retroactive legislation refusing the pending backlog of applicants is the greatest sham in the history of Canadian immigration policy. Close to 300,000 applicants who were all promised that their credentials would be evaluated under previous criteria will now be refused. It will occur even though the Federal Court blocked a similar attempt in 2003, when department officials were found to be misleading the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration in its attempt to pass legislation that would retroactively wipe out a much smaller inventory.
This initiative severely contrasts with the image of an immigration department that vigorously pursues efforts to warn the public against dealing with crooked immigration consultants. Canadians should be demanding answers to the following questions: Who is regulating the Harper government? How could the immigration department claim with credibility that it can build a new skilled worker program with promises to attract the best and brightest to fuel our labour market growth? The government's history is to blatantly repudiate similar promises.
Another issue is the government's plan for a new system modelled on the programs of Australia and New Zealand, two countries which are not comparable to Canada. New Zealand has a population equal to British Columbia and Australia has a constitutional framework and demographics that are inapplicable to Canada.
Australia has immigration levels on par with Canada and a similar points-based immigration system. It also imposes a restrictive English-language requirement and a pre-screening of employment credentials. The new skilled-worker program in Canada will likely feature both these elements. But a study by University of Waterloo professor Mikal Skuterud and his Australian co-author, Andrew Clarke, concludes that immigrants to Australia enjoy higher earnings than Canada because there has been a clear shift in source country distribution in Australia toward English-speaking countries.
Australia has a national credential recognition program. But in Canada professional credential recognition is an exclusive provincial jurisdiction. In New Zealand, the government implemented a national job bank of potential foreign workers where employers can cherry pick the best pre-screened candidates. Embracing an international recruitment model used by a marginal low-population player such as New Zealand makes no sense for Canada‹unless Mr. Kenney intends to become the world's largest international recruiter of human capital.
Since Confederation, immigration in Canada has been a matter of joint responsibility between the federal government and the provinces. Every province and the Yukon Territory has implemented its own immigration programs, in order to promote immigration policies best suited to a province's particular needs. Mr. Kenney would be well advised to direct department policies toward Canada's short-term immigration programs and delegate the bulk of its long-term immigration intake and employment credential-related pre-screening programs entirely to the provinces. They, in turn, can implement binding contractual promises and a myriad of financial incentives to ensure settlement. There is ample precedent that such measures succeed in this area.
As Canada enters a period of economic expansion, Canadian employers are now dependent, more than ever, on the influx of foreign workers in many industries to develop a knowledge-based economy and to maintain their international competitive edge. Immigration is essential in most OECD countries, but especially in Canada, in part to offset demographic developments, including low fertility rates, an aging population, a growing elderly dependency ratio, a shrinking labour force and high out-migration rates.
Developing nations that were once primarily sources of skilled labour for Canada are now experiencing a boom in their own right that is beginning to increase their attractiveness for highly educated migrants.
The current federal immigration system needs fixing. But refusing the current backlog of skilled-worker applicants, the largest in Canada's history, reneging on the most basic previous contractual promises, and adopting policies largely based on a patchwork of measures from other much less relevant models, is ethically dubious, short sighted and will likely create a program that once again replicates the defects prevalent under previous ministers. Only this time, it will cement our reputation as an unreliable, untrustworthy player in the global migration industry, which neither Canadian employers, nor the provinces, can afford.
* This article previously appeared in the National Post