Time to start to look at immigrants as job creators, not just job fillers

Canada needs more immigrants. How do you react to this statement?

I would first respond with another question, “What do you mean by ‘needs more immigrants’?” Because in a sense we do not need more immigrants. We are doing fine with the current immigration levels we have, and as long as we maintain levels as they are now, our population will continue to grow slowly until close to the end of the century. We don’t need more immigrants; rather this is a matter of choice. We ought to want more immigrants because if we have a larger population, Canada will be an even better country than it is now. It seems to me that having a larger population offers greater potential to Canada in the future than if we maintain immigration levels where they are now.

The bigger question ultimately is how we run our country, how we will manage our institutions, our cities and our society in general, and how we would manage substantial population growth. These are risks that we would need to manage if we are going to succeed with a substantially larger population. I am confident, however, that Canada can manage growth and become a more dynamic and prosperous country as a result of increasing immigration levels.

What happens if we significantly increase the number of immigrants per year? Are our institutions ready to handle a greater volume?

Canadian institutions know what to do to manage immigration intake and they know how to manage settlement. They also know what to do to manage longer term integration, and ultimately citizenship. But what we need to do is scale up. Could our agencies handle an increase of, say, 100,000 immigrants per year? Right now, the answer is probably no, that we couldn’t easily handle those volumes; but that’s an easy fix for Canada. You simply hire and train more people and add more resources. We know in general what it is we need to do, it’s just a matter of whether we can handle the increased volume.

There’s another issue here, however, because what the Century Initiative wants to do is increase population and thereby enhance the prosperity of Canada. So, you can ask are we ready to do that? Are we ready to manage population growth for this purpose? I think that we could handle the economic, social and health needs of newcomers; but I’m not sure that we are as able to maximize their contributions to Canada. We tend to focus on getting immigrants into jobs and filling labour shortages – and we have decent success on this. But we are less able to help newcomers who wish to become entrepreneurs, those immigrants who don’t want to become employees but want to be employers, to create companies and be innovators. I think this is largely missing in Canada’s approach to managing immigration. If we want to grow our population for the purposes of greater prosperity, we need to look at immigrants as job creators, not just job fillers. This won’t happen all by itself.

When you talk to people about immigration levels, for many, the first question to answer is “how many jobs need to be filled?” It’s an important question, but it’s a very different question from that of how many jobs could higher immigration levels create? It involves a reframing of our thinking about immigrants and immigration in Canada.

What are some of the things that Canada does well in welcoming and integrating newcomers, and where do we have some work to do?

We have strong framework legislation, and I’m specifically referring to the constitution and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Having these pieces of framework legislation sets clear expectations for everyone. Our multiculturalism act explicitly denies a historically privileged identity for anyone in Canada and speaks directly about how the Canadian identity will continue to evolve over time, through immigration. I think this is very important, allowing all newcomers to have a role in shaping Canada while retaining their identity and culture. But this legislation also makes it clear that immigrants are like everyone else in Canada, subject to Canadian law.

Our integration services are strong. We have comprehensive programs in immigrant settlement and language training, and we offer them health care and social services ranging from getting kids signed up for school to supporting job searches, retraining, and other supports. All of these things are quite helpful and quite successful. However, we tend to limit our integration programming to helping people get into existing jobs. We are behind in thinking about immigrants as job creators or innovators and those who create and scale-up companies. Expanding our integration programming to help immigrants become entrepreneurs and innovators is key. I think these kinds of supports could go a long way to helping people become entrepreneurs and thereby help to grow Canada’s economy.

You have studied migration and worked with experts in other countries. How does the Canadian experience compare to other countries? What can we learn from elsewhere?

I think in general we do very well in comparison with most countries. That’s not to say that the outcomes are always going to be better. If we’re thinking about managing migration, at least on the economic side, we can point to our relatively successful points system. However, we usually measure our success here in terms of the income that immigrants earn. If you look at other countries with a points system, such as Australia, at times they have done better than we have in integrating immigrants into the labour market, at least in terms of incomes earned. They have found some ways to better match the skills that newcomers bring with them to the local market. Canada is continually trying to improve on this.

If you look at the United States, they have almost nothing in terms of supports and integration programs for immigrants and they do not select immigrants based on a points system. Rather, they rely on employers to do most of the selection. The outcomes of immigrants in the US, however, are often better than in Canada. But, the Americans have a very large economy rooted in a spirit of entrepreneurship. They are ten times larger than Canada and their economy simply has a greater capacity to offer opportunities to immigrants.

The Century Initiative is about responsible and thoughtful population growth and how this will make Canada a more diverse, relevant and prosperous nation. What do you think we need to do to ensure that growing the population is successful and benefits future generations?

There are a number of things we need to pay attention to. In terms of immigration, we want to make sure we attract immigrants that can help Canada prosper. There is, right now, a global competition for the best and the brightest, and Canada needs to be more competitive, in my view. Our selection system is designed to pick the best and the brightest, but it can only pick out the best and the brightest of those who apply to come to Canada. In reality, many of the best and the brightest in the world end up going to the U.S., Europe, or Australia and increasingly to countries with emerging and rapidly growing economies.

We need to do more to attract people to come here. Thinking about our universities, we have and should become much more aware of the benefits of internationalizing the student body and of the fact that our universities need to compete. However, when you look at the list of the world’s top universities, there are few Canadian universities in the top 100, and that tells me that we are not as competitive as we could be.

Overall, we are going to have to find a way to bring many different players to the table on this. This can’t just be the federal government bringing in more people and the rest of Canada crossing our fingers that it will work. We need to be strategic in our approach and work collaboratively to get there.

On a personal level, why do you think Canada would be a better place with more people?

I do not believe scale alone is sufficient. You can have a large population and at the same time be poor. What we need to do is focus on innovation and prosperity for all and unleashing Canada’s potential. With that in mind, scale does matter.

Personally, I’d like to see Canada become an arts and culture hub in the world. The economic prosperity that should come with a bigger Canada and this initiative would lead to a great cultural richness, such as a thriving arts scene and a vibrant music scene. If you take Toronto as an example, I’m old enough to remember when Toronto was called, “Toronto the good.” At that point, Toronto had a population of roughly 1 million people and it was rather boring. Now, with a population in the GTA of over 5 million people, you have a city that has captured a lot of global attention with its international film festival, music festivals, pride festivals, and so on. Toronto has become a much stronger hub for arts and culture than it was with a population of 1 million. In addition, Toronto’s universities are intellectually much stronger than they were before, engaging and attracting talented faculty and students. I think bringing the population of Toronto up has resulted in great city. This is something that I would like to see happen elsewhere in Canada.