The Canadian government should be bringing in more skilled immigrants if it hopes to grow the economy in the coming decades, a new report suggests, and at least one expert says that strategy makes “complete sense.”
The Advisory Council of Economic Growth, a group of external experts advising Finance Minister Bill Morneau, unveiled its first report in Ottawa on Thursday.
Among the recommendations contained in the document is a call to increase immigration levels by 50 per cent (from 300,000 to 450,000 people annually) over the next five years and to ease regulations to allow more skilled foreigners to move to Canada – or to stay here after completing their studies.
“For immigration to fully offset the impact of Canada’s impending demographic squeeze, annual permanent economic immigration would need to nearly double from the current level of about 300,000 per year – a much more dramatic increase than the 50 percent increase recommended here,” the report notes.
Queen’s University immigration law professor Sharry Aiken said she is “reservedly positive” about the proposal.
Canada definitely has the capacity to welcome 50 per cent more new arrivals in the timeline suggested, Aiken said, and such an increase may be the only way to ward off serious economic problems looming on the horizon.
The number of working-age Canadians for every senior is expected to drop from 4.2 in 2015 to 2.7 in 2030, according to the Department of Finance. Increasing the number of skilled, new arrivals each year makes “complete sense” in that context, Aiken said.
“We’re an aging population, so at the upper end of our years people are living longer, but are correspondingly out of the workforce longer,” Aiken said.
“And at the same time our fertility rates are declining, so we’re not replenishing the population as quickly as we did, say, 100 years ago.”
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What will be critical, she cautioned, is ensuring an increase in services for the new immigrants at the federal, provincial and especially municipal level to help them find employment and integrate into their communities.
These would not be refugees from war-torn countries like the people who arrived last winter from Syria, she noted, but trained workers who would ideally be at the start or mid-point of their careers. They will bring children, spouses and sometimes parents.
“We can’t just expand the numbers with no corresponding intensification of the infrastructure at every level of government … we’re importing immigrants and their immediate families, at the very least.”
Matthew Wilson, senior vice-president with Canadian Manufactures & Exporters, told The Canadian Press on Wednesday that expanding the pool of skilled workers is good in theory, but the government must do a better job ensuring they are the right workers.
“Just bringing in more immigrants isn’t going to solve the skills-gap problem if they don’t have the skills Canadian companies need.”
Welcoming waves of new arrivals may not be an easy sell to the Canadian populace at large, either. Last week, Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains acknowledged that the federal government is encountering public “pushback” on immigration from Canadians who fear for their jobs.
“The honest truth is there is still reluctance around immigration policy,” Bains said.
“When we want to talk about immigration and we say we want to bring more immigrants in because it’s good for the economy, we still get pushback.”
In interviews with The Globe and Mail and The Canadian Press on Tuesday, Immigration Minister John McCallum seemed to express reservations of his own, saying he is not prepared to go as high as 450,000 immigrants per year.
But the minister suggested the current number will rise when the government releases its 2017 immigration targets, which should happen by Nov. 1.
On Thursday, McCallum’s office was striking a much more positive tone.
“The minister certainly appreciates the work done by the Advisory Council on Economic Growth and will be reviewing its recommendations together with feedback received from over 500 stakeholders throughout the summer during 43 cross-Canada roundtable discussions,” said a senior department official in an email.
“This input is being used to inform the important decisions on future immigration levels.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was similarly vague when asked about the recommendation during a stop in Brampton, Ont.
Trudeau said there are “unacceptable” wait times and backlogs for skilled workers, and that his government remains open to immigration and knows how important it is to bring in a broad range of people.
The two other major economic areas tackled by the 14-member advisory group on Thursday were infrastructure and the attraction of more foreign investment in Canada’s economy.
The group has suggested creating an “infrastructure bank” that would develop and finance infrastructure projects.
“Historically, the federal government has financed substantial provincial and municipal projects, but often without a clear national strategy,” the report’s authors note.
“We believe that executing a coherent national economic growth strategy requires a more purposeful approach to federal infrastructure funding.”
Foreign investment could be increased through, among other things, the creation of a new government agency to pursue and attract firms from outside Canada, the advisory panel suggests.