Canada’s immigration model is coming under strain

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The writer is author of ‘Why the Germans Do It Better’ and is working on a new book about global best practice

Immigration is one of the dominant issues of our time. It has played a major role in the European elections and in campaigning in Britain. Across the world, it has led to anger, the promise of easy solutions and the rise of populism. 

What is required instead is a sober discussion about demography, employment, multiculturalism and integration. One of only a few countries that has confronted the problem with political maturity is Canada. Indeed, the ability to welcome and absorb people from elsewhere has been Canada’s calling card for more than half a century.

It was the present prime minister’s father, Pierre Trudeau, who changed the face of his country, literally. In 1971, initially as a response to what was perceived as growing francophone nationalism in Quebec, Canada became the first country to adopt a formal policy of multiculturalism.

This ran alongside a decision to increase the population through immigration. Canada had long allowed in entrants from the “white Commonwealth” and northern Europe. Where “others” did arrive, they were treated badly.

In the 1970s all that dramatically changed. Canada welcomed Ugandan Asians, Iranians fleeing the 1979 revolution, Vietnamese and others. In 1989, a large exodus of Hong Kong Chinese arrived. In 2015-16, Canada opened its arms to 40,000 refugees fleeing civil war in Syria.

Canada has long been a beacon of best practice. It is the first country to have promoted private sponsorship of refugees, with citizens’ groups mentoring new arrivals as they look for work, schools, language teaching, accommodation, even taking them to the local bank branch to open an account. The public is brought into discussions about falling birth rates, the kinds of employment that is needed and how locals can help. “Canadians are generous because we all came from somewhere,” Olivia Chow, mayor of Toronto, told me. Rightwing politicians who play the racecard have so far done poorly at the ballot box.

Now, however, another side to the story is emerging. The Greater Toronto Area and other big cities are suffering from a housing shortage, poor access to healthcare and creaking public transport. Homelessness is rife. The federal government has released extra funds for shelters; churches are offering space.

Every year the Canadian government sets a “level” for immigration after holding a series of public consultations. The level agreed for 2025 and 2026 is 500,000, the highest yet. But whereas permanent residency requires a series of tests, the authorities have been far more generous in handing out temporary work permits and student visas.

Responding to a marked shift in public opinion, the government announced in March a cap on both groups. In September 2023, an annual survey carried out by the Environics Institute, which tracks social issues, found that 44 per cent of people agreed that “there is too much immigration to Canada” — up 17 points from 2022, the largest year-over-year change since it first asked the question in 1977. The present prime minister, the younger Trudeau, Justin, has talked of bringing immigration “under control”. 

“Immigration and integration are an increasingly important part of our national identity,” says Keith Neuman, senior associate at the Environics Institute. “Canadians continue to value the benefits of immigration and welcoming people from around the world but are losing confidence in how the system is being managed.”

Canada needs to address its housing problems and other strains on public services quickly. That will be tough but not as tough as elsewhere given that it has the second-fastest growing economy in the G7. It needs to ensure that its immigration system remains as efficient as before. Most of all, it needs to keep the public on board. Because if this exemplar fails, what chances elsewhere? 

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