Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Some notes on new immigration trends in Canada

In the right-leaning Canadian daily newspaper the National Post, policy analyst and writer Steve Lafleur recently had an article titled "Only more immigrants can save Canada’s economy" published. How many more immigrants, and why so many more?

In his immigration policy remarks on July 19, Minister Jason Kenney acknowledged that Canada would need roughly one million immigrants per year in order to maintain the ratio of working age citizens to retirees. Citing a lack of resources for integrating new Canadians, and a concern that accelerating immigration levels too rapidly could lead to a nativist backlash, he said that it won’t happen.

While the Minister’s expressed concerns are valid, they pale in comparison to the demographic reality. The proportion of Canadians aged 60 and over is projected to increase from roughly one-fifth to nearly one-third by 2020. Our national debt stands at over $582-billion, and is increasing at a rate of more than $1,400 per second. This burden doesn’t include provincial government debts, or unfunded pension liabilities such as the $748-billion shortfall for the CPP. For those Canadians hoping to start collecting CPP in the next decade, the question shouldn’t be if we can integrate one-million immigrants per year, but how.

While taking in four times more immigrants than we do now would present some logistical challenges, they are not insurmountable. One criticism against more immigrants is that more immigrants will put greater stress on the housing market. This assumes that the housing stock is fixed, and that all immigrants will go to the hottest real estate markets. Canada’s three biggest cities have admittedly been hostile to new development, which is pricing many out of the market. A healthier attitude toward development will be crucial if those cities are to remain affordable.

However, the immigration question presents a great opportunity not just for smaller metropolitan areas, but for rural areas as well. Rural areas in Canada are often resource rich, but population poor. It is most evident in Saskatchewan, where there are typically 10,000 vacancies in any skilled trade in the province. There are plenty of resources, but not many people. Saskatchewan is twice the size of Germany, with 1/80th the population. There is no shortage of room or resources.

Smaller centres also offer the advantage of lower cost housing, and would require less expensive infrastructure upgrades. Manitoba is leading the country in terms of targeted immigration to smaller centres. Rural Manitoba received nearly 3,200 immigrants in 2008 alone, and the province is clamouring for more. For too long, our immigration policy has been fixated on Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. High levels of rural immigration can revitalize communities, and Manitoba has shown the way.

I see any number of problems with this. Leaving aside the question of whether such vastly increased immigration would be acceptable to the Canadian electorate, I wonder if Canada should enact this policy given the continuing lags in income and employment relative to the Canadian average experienced not only by first-generation immigeants but apparently many of their Canadian-born children. Is it ethical for a country to sharply increase levels of immigration if it can't guarantee the integration of these immigrants and their children into the community on equal terms with native-born? Canadians have a myth of their country as a country open to all. The ongoing growth of class and income disparities in the city of Toronto right now defined substantially by ethnicity and immigration status could disprove this thesis quite badly.

Lafleur does bring up the interesting success of the province of Manitoba. Manitoba Labour and Immigration's 2009 report does suggest that the province, twice as many immigrants as the neighbouring province of Saskatchewan that also has a population of roughly one million (13 520 in Manitoba in 2009 versus 6 890 in Saskatchewan). This may have something to do with the distribution of the Manitoban population. Winnipeg is the province's capital and largest city, and with its hinterland, accounts for seven-tenths of the province's population. Opportunities offered by economies of scale may exist in Manitoba thanks to Winnipeg that don't exist in Saskatchewan, where less than a quarter live in the largest city of Saskatoon and a fifth in the provincial capital of Regina a substantial distance away. The previous mentioned report does suggest that a percentage of immigrants roughly proportional to Winnipeg's share of Manitoba's population does settle in Winnipeg, however, suggesting that the rest of province is also attractive. Rates of unemployment in Manitoba are consistently 2% or more below the Canadian average, with Saskatchewan in a similar position. Presumably Manitoba is doing something right insofar as attracting immigration goes. Is it doing right by its immigrants? Research is called for.

For that matter, my native Prince Edward Island is also apparently doing something right. Taking in absolutely as many immigrants (some two thousand per year) as the much larger adjacent provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, the province is really surprising me.

When a Chinese immigrant visits Brown’s Volkswagen in Charlottetown, general manager Skip Rudderham is prepared: He has interpreters on speed-dial and bilingual business cards. Prince Edward Island, with its reputation of homogeneity and conservatism, may not seem the likeliest province to require such measures, but require them it does: Chinese immigration is transforming the island both culturally and economically.

“We would quite literally hire every qualified [Chinese] person we could get our hands on,” said Mr. Rudderham. “Our Chinese clientele is large enough that we could keep this person busy basically dealing with that clientele alone.”

[. . .]

Since the province started recruiting skilled and affluent immigrants through its Provincial Nominee Program in 2001, upward of 10,000 newcomers have called P.E.I. home. But while the province of just 143,200 is undergoing a metamorphosis at the behest of immigration generally, it is immigration from a land of nearly 1,337,000,000 in particular that is driving the novel shift.

China has been the chief source of immigration to P.E.I. for the past five years, with nearly 2,400 newcomers arriving between 2006 and 2009 alone, according to the province’s Population Secretariat. Most of those newcomers at least initially settled in Charlottetown, where the population was just 32,000 at the time of the census in 2006.

[. . .]

That fact has not been lost on the government, which is looking to counter a natural-population-growth rate that has shrunk to almost zero. Provincial spending on resettlement programs doubled to more than $4.2-million between 2008 and 2009, and it has paid off: P.E.I’s population rose by nearly 400 in the first quarter of this year, making it the only Atlantic Canada province to see an increase.

[. . .]

Hamish Redpath, a realtor who recently launched a monthly bilingual publication called Ni Hao PEI (Mandarin for “Hello P.E.I.”), said he regularly shows homes to Chinese newcomers at prices ranging between $400,000 to $1.5-million. He said the Chinese community is peppered throughout Charlottetown and across the bridges in communities such as Stratford and Cornwall.

“They’re interested in beautiful homes, with water views or right on the waterfront,” Mr. Redpath said, adding that he serves Chinese families looking for more modest abodes, too. “I have also shown Chinese families some rural homesteads outside of Charlottetown. They have lived in Beijing all their lives and they talked to me about the pollution and the crazy traffic, so to come here and have five acres and a little farmhouse for a couple hundred thousand bucks is a dream come true.”

A fourfold increase in immigration is probably impossible. If Manitoba and Prince Edward Island, two provinces not known as receivers of immigrants, are encountering success, then there may well be a diffusion of immigrants beyond the country's traditional gateway cities--Toronto, Montréal, Vancouver--that could bode well for immigrant integration into the country's labour markets and national life as a whole.


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