National Column: Feds decide to hold steady on immigration levels, for now

by Paul Wells

What’s this! A difference of opinion? Among Trudeau Liberals?

Governments are usually so intent on describing their choices as though they were handed down on stone tablets that it is refreshing to see one admit, even by accident, that some of these questions are hard. Enter John McCallum, the minister of immigration, who has decided after long consideration that Canada’s immigration levels are – well, pretty good, actually.

This flies in the face of advice McCallum’s colleague, Finance Minister Bill Morneau, has only just received from some of Morneau’s favourite smart people, the Advisory Council on Economic Growth. Led by globe-trotting consultant Dominic Barton, the panel’s interim report suggests a 50-per-cent increase in immigration over five years – led by a doubling in economic-class immigrants over the same period.

This is not merely a matter of national pride or a vague sense that the more people who can call themselves Canadian the better, Barton argues. It’s a necessary remedy to the slow aging of Canada’s population and the difficulty Canadian firms have attracting “senior and specialized talent.” Boosting immigration is part of Barton’s plan to give every Canadian family a $15,000 pay raise by 2030.

On Monday, McCallum said he’ll hold total immigration levels steady next year, and boost economic immigration just a touch. Did he just cancel part of Barton’s raise?

A great big hint to McCallum’s motives came when he tabled a summary report on Canada-wide
consultations into immigration.

“Overall, stakeholders support a measured increase in immigration levels over multiple years,” the report says. “Some online submissions from the general public called for reductions in immigration levels.”


And in what could be read as a direct rebuttal to Barton’s argument, the report continues: “Stakeholders and the general public acknowledged that while immigration can help to fill demographic and economic gaps, it is only one component of a larger strategy to meet labour-market needs and that it should be balanced with fostering talent within Canada.”

I don’t want to overstate the extent of the disagreement here. Let’s save the Liberals At Daggers Drawn headline for a little later in the mandate. The Barton report came out after most of the work that went into setting next year’s targets was already done. McCallum could yet start ramping up immigration levels in future years.

It’s also possible for several assertions to be true at the same time. That every person is an economic actor, so that a larger population could be expected to entail a larger economy. That younger immigrants could tilt Canada’s demographic balance in helpful ways. But also that immigration levels are already higher than they were quite recently. And that the general widespread acceptance of immigration isn’t something a responsible government should want to jostle for kicks.

One of the people who has thought hardest about the balancing act that’s implied here is John McCallum.

The former bank economist turned, I think a little bit to his amazement, wise elder veteran of the Trudeau cabinet often talks about how lucky he is to have widespread support for the work he does. And to add, in the same breath, that he is not particularly in a mood to screw it up. He is an incrementalist by temperament.

He also has enough challenges on his plate even without substantial increases in the numbers. Targets are one thing, reality another.

Canada admitted fewer economic immigrants in 2015 than it planned to. One of McCallum’s predecessors, Elinor Caplan, used to announce immigration levels that didn’t materialize.

The fascination with economic immigrants seems based on two contestable notions.

First, that there are armies of MBAs in Manila or Madrid who would pack their bags and come fix Canada’s productivity problems if only we would simplify the paperwork.

Second, that office managers in their 40s are the surest route to prosperity. I’m not sure that’s what the real record of immigration in North America shows. I think the record shows that people without fantastic jobs waiting for them have less motivation, and show less ingenuity, than newcomers who land here without a plan.

Huddled masses yearning to breathe free, our neighbours to the south used to call them, though lately that notion has fallen out of style there. Dominic Barton was born in Uganda, where his father was a teacher and his mother a nurse. Carefully selecting immigrants, rather than letting them select themselves, may be one of those ideas that sounds smarter than it is.

Copyright 2016-Torstar Syndication Services

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