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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Look, there are enough of us
Panic and a misunderstanding of past practice are guiding our population policy, says former immigration director JAMES BISSETT
Tuesday, April 2, 2002 – Page A15

The 2001 census report showing that Canada's population growth since 1996 was a modest 4 per cent has caused panic among Canada's politicians and some members of the media. The Prime Minister expressed dismay and suggested higher immigration was the answer. The new Immigration Minister, Denis Coderre, echoed his master's voice and is quoted as saying, "Since the census, we know that we need more immigrants." This is a surprising comment since the census didn't say we needed more immigrants. The census simply said our population has increased by 4 per cent since 1996.

Hard on the heels of the census, the House of Commons immigration committee released a report on March 21 stressing that more must be done to attract immigrants so desperately needed by Canada. The committee went so far as to recommend that asylum seekers found to be refugees by the Immigration and Refugee Board be granted permanent residence status after 60 days.

This status is not normally given until applicants have met Canada's criminal and security screening, but presumably the committee feels the need for more people sufficiently urgently that we need not bother about such "bureaucratic" impediments.

Media headlines announcing our population growth at a record low reinforced the view that Canada was facing a national catastrophe -- if not today, then certainly in the future should our population not continue to expand. One columnist suggested that by taking in 850,000 immigrants, or 2 per cent of our population a year, we could even reach a population level of 100 million in 60 years' time. (There was no attempt to explain where all of these newcomers were going to live or find jobs. But it is not uncommon for those who talk about high levels of immigration to ignore the needs of the immigrant.)

This almost hysterical reaction to the census report is scary. It demonstrates once again that our legislatures and opinion shapers -- the politicians and the media -- frequently jump to the wrong conclusions, and having done so, don't want to be confused by the facts.

Canada is not in danger of losing its population. Our birth rate may be declining but we still have one of the highest population-growth rates among the industrial countries; higher than France, Britain, Germany, Italy and Japan.

University of Toronto economics professor David Foot has pointed out that a demographic review conducted by the Department of Health and Welfare in 1989 made it clear that Canada was not threatened by depopulation.

The review showed that despite the birth rate falling below replacement level, a net immigration intake of only 80,000 annually (about half of our average annual 1990s intake) would see our population continue to grow until 2026. There would then be a gradual decline until eight centuries later, when the population would stabilize at 18 million. So why the panic?

Rod Beaujot, professor of sociology at the University of Western Ontario, is another demographic expert who is not frightened by the census results. He has pointed out that the world's population is not increasing as fast as before and believes this to be a good thing.

The countries of Western Europe are finding that as the labour force shrinks, their Gross National Product expands and their wealth and prosperity continues to increase. Perhaps our politicians should be reminded that it is not the size of the labour force that counts but the quality and education of the participants.

Too great a reliance on immigrant labour absolves a country from ensuring that its native-born are adequately trained and equipped to meet the challenges of a changing and dynamic economic environment. From the end of the Second World War until the mid-1980s, Canada relied extensively on the selection of skilled immigrants to meet our labour force demands.

Why (the argument goes) spend the time, energy and money on training the young or the disadvantaged when we can rob other countries of their brightest and best? There are those who believe this reliance on foreign labour has inhibited our willingness to train and educate our own young people.

The reality is, however, that since the mid-1980s, Canada has not been selecting the brightest and the best. Indeed, only a small part of the immigration movement to Canada is selected because of its occupational or educational expertise. The greater portion of the immigration flow to Canada consists of family members of people already residing here or those accepted for humanitarian reasons. These immigrants -- making up almost 80 per cent of the total -- only have to be in good health, have a clear criminal record and a security clearance to gain permanent residence. They do not have to have any other qualifications to enter. Yet, there are members of Parliament on the House of Commons committee who are determined to broaden the family class.

Unfortunately, many of these "family and humanitarian" newcomers do not possess the education and skills required to compete in an increasingly technologically demanding job market. This explains why, since the 1980s, our immigrants have not fared as well as their predecessors.

Studies by the universities of Toronto and York have found that 52 per cent of immigrants arriving since the 1980s were living below the poverty line. If we are only interested in numbers, as the members of the immigration committee seem to be, then this is not a problem. But I doubt if many Canadians would agree that immigration can, or should, be reduced to a numbers game.

Canada does not have a rational immigration or population policy. For a number of years now, the policy with respect to numbers has been set at 1 per cent of our population annually. There is no rational explanation for the 1-per-cent figure. It is policy because it appeared in an incorrect sentence in the 1993 Liberal Red Book, which stated: "We should continue to target immigration levels of approximately 1 per cent of the population each year as has been the case for more than a decade."

Canada had not received 1 per cent of our population as immigrants since before the First World War, but this did not seem to matter. After all, when it comes to immigration or demography, our politicians do not want to be confused by facts.
James Bissett is a former Canadian ambassador, and from 1985 to 1990 was the executive director of Canada's Immigration Service.

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