Canada’s first great national dream " our conti- nent-straddling, glittering ribbon of steel, from sea to shining sea " always had a dark side. Hundreds of imported Chinese coolies plunged to their deaths in swamps and from cliff faces building it. Many of the sur- vivors were deported at the end of their usefulness; the others were left to struggle through lives of poverty and official discrimination.

Canada’s new national dream " the world’s first multi-ethnic developed society, tolerant and colour-blind with equal opportunity for all " is marred by its own dark shadow. Many of those who arrive to build the dream endure rejection of their credentials and their experience while they and their families struggle to overcome more subtle forms of discrimination. Increasingly, they struggle at the bottom of the social ladder for far longer than any other generation of Canadian immigrants. Those in the queue to win a chance to land and build a life often endure a nightmare in an immigration purgatory than can last years.

Canada’s immigration system is, once again, broken. Heralded for its bias-free, ethnically neutral, objective test of skills and capabilities " when compared to most oth- ers and our own race-based quota history " it is now an embarrassment to Canada. It is also a constant humilia- tion to nearly a million men and women trapped in its red tape, bureaucratic paralysis and contradictions.

Anyone who has ever worked in politics in Canada, fighting for constituents’ cases as an elected member or staffer, has a collection of appalling stories about the victims of our immigration hell. The arbitrary and often incomprehensible stupidity of some parts of the immigra- tion processing empire would cause even the most cynical observer to blush. Tragic tales of applications and appeals that go unanswered for years; decisions to separate parents and infants without explanation; refusal to acknowledge other nations’ awards, credentials and approvals; and Kafkaesque treatment of supplicants roll in daily to MPs’ offices across Canada.

A junior Canadian immigration official attempted to deny my infant niece entrance to Canada, from her birth home near Shanghai, until she had lived with her adopted mother and father for six months. This was a standard response a decade ago. That this was clearly an impossible option for parents who had often travelled long distances from their homes to complete an adoption was irrelevant. The official reason offered was ”œconcern about whether this was a sincere adoption.” My mother’s caustic response still echoes: ”œWhat do they mean, exactly? That my daughter plans to sell her adored new child in Canada, or that my new infant grand-daughter has plans to set up an illegal Chinese laundry on arrival?” This year, after many years of bitter stories by adoptive parents, the government announced that adopted children, born anywhere in the world would be granted citizenship immediately, when adopted by Canadian parents.

The thousands of men and women who work on the front lines of the Canadian immigration system in embassies, consulates and commissions around the world, a majority of them non-Canadian local hires, may be excused for sometimes harsh and arbitrary rulings, given the volume-driven pressures under which they operate, the many subterfuges and deceits employed by immigra- tion ”œconsultants” and their clients to which they are subject every day and the lack of transparency at any one time about what our immigra- tion policy really is.

The immigration holding areas in Canadian offices in India and China look like airport waiting rooms on a holiday weekend, all day, every day. Hundreds of tense, sometimes aggres- sive adults and crying children sit, often for hours, waiting for their brief life-changing interview. Of the more than 900,000 supplicants on waiting lists, more than two-thirds are from China and the Indian subcontinent, and tens of thousands of new appli- cants pour in each year.

It is an embarrassing scene, the product of an unbridgeable chasm between policy goals and public demand. Canadian immigration poli- cy has always been, understandably, self-interested first. In the 19th centu- ry we wanted peasants willing to occupy and cultivate the land. We found them by the thousands in east- ern Europe. In the 20th century we wanted skilled labourers and import- ed them first from the UK, the Caribbean and southern Europe and later from Asia. Today we want highly skilled tradespeople, service workers and professionals. We take nearly half of the annual total from East and South Asia.

Humanitarian policy goals in immigration have always played a dis- tant second to economic imperatives, though few politicians or immigration officials like to concede this inevitable reality. Reunifying families does much less " and granting landed status to poor refugees is even more ineffective " to fill the economic gaps created by our declining birth rates than select- ing a bright young Bangladeshi engi- neer or experienced Chinese software programmer as a new Canadian-in- waiting.

Our public dishonesty about not wanting to import indigent grandmothers and great-uncles as part of the package with our young engi- neer and his family is the root cause of much of the anger about immigration policy these days. We accept family re- unification for two reasons: it is the price of getting the best immigrants, and it encourages the ones we really want to stay. There was a brief flurry of consternation even among immigra- tion advocates when Statistics Canada revealed in March that, according to its analysis of the 2001 and 2006 cen- sus data, as many as 40 percent of landed immigrants and new citizens return to their native lands.

This was not news to those who had observed the waves of Asian immigration in the 1990s. The Hong Kong and Taiwanese immigrants who flooded Canada and Australia in the panic of post-Tiananmen China found on landing that their creden- tials and professional experience were not recognized, that tax rates were high and good job opportuni- ties low. Many, perhaps as many as 250,000, returned ”œhome” after years of frustration in Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto.

Today, it is hard to imagine that the Indian engineering Ph.D. work- ing a night shift as a Toronto hospital orderly is not tempted by stories from Bangalore brothers about opportuni- ties in the booming Indian economy. Apart from the personal frustration for the families themselves, this is the extravagant cost of the failure of our immi- grant integration structure to cope.

It matches changes in demand poorly, fails to win accept- ance of immigrants’ credentials and experience and is heavily overloaded in Toronto and Montreal. More than half the immigrants to Canada end up in the Great Toronto Area. Much of the burden for their integration falls, incredibly, on municipal taxpayers.

Once we have found the ”œbest in class” from our lengthening queue of immigrants " those with the industri- al and technical skills we say we need " and paid to help them find housing, learn English and ”œbecome Canadian,” we are surprised by their anger at having to drive a cab for years.

It was not meant to be this way. Forty years ago Jean Marchand and Pierre Elliott Trudeau engineered the amendments to Canadian immigra- tion law which ended the last of the race-based quota system and replaced it with a merit-based and skills-based admission system, with special provi- sions for family reunification. Despite the Tory reputation for being ”œimmi- grant unfriendly,” it was John Diefenbaker and Ellen Fairclough who began the reform process, away from the ”œwhite Canada” immigration poli- cy instituted by Mackenzie King and maintained until the late 1950s.

It was King whose report on Vancouver’s anti-Chinese race riots laid the groundwork for Canada’s ”œanti-yellow peril” immigration poli- cies, claiming that the Asian male had a propensity for narcotic drug use. And it was the BC Liberal Party that took out full-page ads in the 1930s saying that supporting the CCF would mean giving ”œthe Chinaman the vote.” But that was before the Liberal Party became the sole and sacred defender of new Canadians’ rights.

Changes to the system over the years have somewhat tilted it away from family reunification and toward skills attraction, though access to Canada is still more open than access to almost any other developed nation.

Sadly " for the applicants and for our previous reputation for tolerance, sensitivity and competence in immigration management " the system is once again on the verge of collapse. The gov- ernment acknowledges that the backlog of applicants is now between 800,000 and 900,000 cases, a backlog that means a gap of six to eight years between application and approval. At current growth rates it will exceed one million before the end of next year. By contrast, when Jean Chrétien became prime minis- ter, the backlog was less than 50,000.

What happened? Budget cuts in the ”˜90s reduced the ability of the sys- tem to process claims; the flood of aspirants grew dramatically, driven especially by the then new freedom of mainland Chinese citizens to go abroad; new security checks and other new processing requirements slowed down the pace of clearance. Immigration consultants pump the system with multiple applicants for the same family, often from different locations, and privacy rules and ancient data systems mean that offi- cials can’t search for duplicates.

Academics expert in immigration and refugee flows often observe that it is not surprising that numbers of claimants increase, what is mysteri- ous is why the numbers rise when they do. Why have increasing num- bers of Mexicans and Central Americans decided to risk their lives in desert crossings to enter the United States now? Their countries were poorer, and in many cases more war-ravaged a decade ago. Why were there not 2 million, 10 million, 20 million Indian immigrant applicants in the 1980s? India, booming today, offered a far dimmer future for its cit- izens then.

The question is important because there are more than 3 billion citizens in East and South Asia, and another two billion in the rest of Asia, Africa and Latin America. At an admission rate of less than 300,000 individuals annually, we can welcome an almost meaninglessly small slice of that potential wave.

This is the awesome dilemma that the federal government is today attempting to address. One may fair- ly observe that it might have avoided the battle over its legislative changes through the sleight-of-hand of slid- ing the changes into a budget omnibus bill. One might raise one’s eyebrows at the expansion of the minister’s already broad powers under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act to determine who gets in the queue, who gets out and in what order " though that is a dubi- ous critique, as we shall see.

What one cannot do with any confidence is suggest that a continuation of the Liberal legacy, or of either the Bloc’s or the NDP’s con- flicted policy notions, would produce anything preferable. The Liberals inherited an almost manageable mess, then drove it into the ground. The problems inherent in manag- ing a fair, open and sustainable immigration policy are real and the answers are not obvious.

It could be worse, a lot worse. We share no border with any country that is home to tens of millions of aspirant immigrants. (If the Bush presi- dency did not produce a surge of American refugees, it is hard to imagine what might.) We are protected from illegal immigra- tion by thousands of miles of oceans on three sides. Our geog- raphy has given us an almost unique opportunity among immigrant nations to carefully choose who becomes Canadian. We are also blessed by the fact that we have devel- oped a mysterious ability to do nation- building, woven from hundreds of ethnic threads, better than anyone else.

Western liberals and much of the international media were horrified by the John Howard government’s offshore imprisonment of Australia’s flood of illegal immigrants, mostly from Indonesia. How different would our response have been if we had faced a mounting invasion of over- crowded, unsafe ships, from a nation of 200 million mostly impoverished people less than 500 miles off our shores, being smuggled in accelerat- ing numbers through the con- nivance of corrupt Indonesian government officials and a sophisti- cated ”œsnakehead” mafia?

Hopefully, we would have avoided the thuggish rhetoric and offshore and desert prison camps Howard was proud of, but beyond that, what? Set up ever-burgeoning refugee and con- tainment centres in the Lower Mainland of BC or the Annapolis Valley? I don’t think so.

We are fortunate, as well, that despite daily temptation, our front-line immigration officials are remarkably incorruptible. The United States and some European countries endure the regular embarrassment of visa sale scandals. It is an open secret in some cities which officials in which diplomatic missions can offer ”œexpedited service,” and what the rate card is. The sums on offer can be hundreds of thousands of dollars, many years of a locally hired official’s salary. We have quietly managed small scandals in Hong Kong and Delhi and a few other places, but Canada retains a reputation as a country whose officials are difficult to buy or even rent.

Our immigration policy, when it has come closest to working well, was always a delicate balance between self- interest and humanitarian conviction, between opening our arms to refugees, grandmothers and the needy on one hand, and to the best skills and brains we could attract on the other. But it has never been un-self-interested or bias- or problem-free.

Yes, we were among the most gen- erous recipients of Vietnamese boat people in the world, magnificent- ly defended by Flora MacDonald. But few Canadians are aware that we also sold billions of dollars of passports to desperate Hong Kong and Taiwan Chinese in the eighties and nineties. We called them ”œimmigrant investor Canadians,” and we took between $250,000 and $750,000 from each of them, invested in sometimes dubious specially created funds, in return for a fast track to citizenship.

We granted a safe haven to thousands of threatened English- school children in the Second World War; but, infamously, ”œNone is too many” was the Mackenzie King government’s verdict on Jewish refugees.

We invest several billion dollars a year in international development, much of it in assistance in skills devel- opment and education in the Third World. Some of the recipients get scholarships to study in Canada, and some of them fall in love with Canada and never go home. Canadian hospi- tals and universities then deprive their Third World countries of desperately needed skills. Some African leaders have quietly complained about trawl- ing expeditions conducted by head- hunters on behalf of Canadian health care clients.

Our immigration ironies are piled many layers high: mounting skills and labour shortages in several sectors and provinces and an almost impossibly choked immigration bot- tleneck; professional associations and provincial governments who refuse to recognize engineering, medical and scientific credentials, while struggling with mounting skills shortages; accountants, doctors and scientists drifting back to their homelands after frustrating years doing menial chores in dead-end jobs.

The incentive to stretch the truth " or, in some cases, to repeat bald-faced lies " for most of the interested players in this sad saga makes serious policy debate rare.

Refugee advocates exaggerate the risks faced by every one of their clients, if they were to be deported, as if to concede one insincerity casts a shadow on all others. Immigration lawyers deny abusing the system while promising desperate applicants that only they know the shortcuts that work. Public and private sector recruiters paint glowing portraits of professional heaven to prospective job candidates overseas, knowing the real picture is far more sombre for many new arrivals. Immigration officials pre- tend that everyone is guaranteed equal treatment, knowing full well that some are far more equal than others. And opposition politicians attack officials’ and ministers’ ability to move some cases to the front of the queue, except when they are demanding it for their own constituents.

As in the health care debate in Canada, the dearly held fictions of partisans on all sides make progress toward a sustainable system almost impossible. Every health minister knows that demand for health care improve- ments is infinite and budgets aren’t. Every health official knows that Canadians universally despise queue jumping, unless it’s their grandmother in the queue.

Immigration ministers know that family reunification must be capped if the system is not to deliver an unsup- portable and unemployable number of the very young and very old. They know that the system must give greater weight to the high-value skills for which high-value jobs really are wait- ing, if they are not to create a backlash of angry unemployed immigrants and unhappy taxpayers. And few prospec- tive immigrants want a genuinely bias and pressure-free selection system, at least not until they and their family have been able to fight their way to the head of the queue using whatever financial and political capital they have been able to bring to bear.

Wandering through the academic and media coverage of one of Canada’s longest-running policy debates, over many decades, one sees several constants emerge:

  • The opposition is always furious at any proposed change in the immi- gration system, and then adopts those changes as its own on return- ing to power. It then tinkers with the entrance requirements, and announces its own ”œbold, new solution,” surprisingly similar to the old. (The NDP and, more recently, the Bloc are opposed to every immigration change of every government, even ones that revert to a position they had previously demanded.)

  • The media play their usual foolish and credulous role, repeating every myth and horror story with shallow attempts at verification, especially when a story can be illustrated with mother and child victims. It would be funny, if weren’t so sad, to see the outrage thundered by the same newspaper editorial page " sometimes by the same reporter " a decade later, over changes the paper forgot it had previously championed.

  • The horror that is predicted to fol- low every change fails to appear, but neither does the system per- form with the fairness and effi- ciency the government claimed it would deliver. Yet Canada remains at the top or near it in every sur- vey of immigrant success.

  • Canadians continue to understand the importance of immigration and our high level of success at integrating newcomers, and report their enthusiasm at the outcome.

In recent years two new players have entered the debate: the colour- ful and somewhat shady cluster of immigration lawyers and consult- ants, and the immigration support NGOs. The immigration lawyers are opposed to any change that would decrease the need for their services and their often astonishing fees, but they always frame their criticism of any change as ”œunfair to applicants.”

The essential conflict is over the hypocrisy at the core of the debate: we do not want to admit that we want only the best immigrants, those that quickly become successful Canadian taxpayers, those whose children go on to create the next gen- eration’s academic, business or pro- fessional successes.

This means " the claims of an endless series of immigration ministers to the contrary notwith- standing " that we really don’t want the aging uncle, the manual-labouring brother-in-law or any other of the oth- erwise unqualified ”œfamily reunifica- tion” distant relatives. And, sadly, the statistics are cruelly blunt about the economic risk of reunification. The second arrival, even a brother with similar qualifications, rarely makes even two-thirds of the income of the first. Husbands, wives and children, we want for sure, as they make for a stable family unit and reduce the temptation to return home in the dif- ficult early years.

And we confuse the economic driver of Canadian immigration policy " openly acknowledged by Clifford Sifton as he successfully depopulated chunks of the Ukrainian and central European farm community with promises of free land
" with the humanitarian impulse of our generous refugee policy. Changes introduced by the Mulroney government, poorly amended by the Chrétien administration and adroitly exploited by the immigration consultant industry failed to deal with this deliberate con- fusion between immigration policy and refugee policy. When an immigra- tion claim was not likely to succeed, the consultatns would counsel the client to apply as a refugee.

The Mulroney government inherited thousands of Trinidadian so-called refugee claimants. The Tories then got themselves in several serious messes over immigration policy, trying like governments before and since to square an impossible circle. The Chrétien govern- ment inherited massive numbers of Indian refugee aspirants from the Tories. Unless they were polygamous Rastas, it’s hard to imagine a legiti- mate Trinidadian refugee claimant. The government of India was under- standably grumpy over our consider- ation of Sikh terrorists as refugees.

The sad reality is this: Canada is one of half a dozen places in the world with both a relatively open- door immigration policy and a desti- nation highly attractive to tens of millions of potential immigrants. There will always be several thousand potential immigrants for each one we are willing to admit. The door will always therefore be half closed. The policy responses to this immutable reality are few:

  • We can adopt much tougher entrance requirements and at the same time target skill sets more precisely. This is what the Tories are accused of doing, though it is hard to see the proof of this in the language of what they have pro- posed, or in any political agenda that is not suicidal.

  • We can leave the point system much as it is and add a lottery layer on top. This is the approach taken by the Americans in hand- ing out their right-to-employment entrance visas, the famous green cards. They supplement this reliance on Lady Luck with special categories of employment visas, based on scarce skill sets, that technology employers depend especially heavily on, and compete viciously over.

  • We could double the annual intake to more than half a mil- lion, which, as a percentage of total Canadians, would not be much greater than the numbers we often accepted in the 1970s. But, given the strains on the sys- tem now, this hardly seems wise or fair to the added cohort.

  • We can reintroduce regional or national quotas. Given that two thirds of the immigration backlog is made up of applicants from India and China, this solution would be instantly effective. It would also be attempted only by a brain-dead government led by politicians tired of living.

Or we can, as the Harper govern- ment has proposed, give to the minister and his or her officials the right to tinker with the numbers and entrance requirements as they determine what the economy and the social requirements of the country dictate. Although this has pro- duced howls of anger about ”œministerial rigging” and ”œpartisan favouritism” from the opposition, it’s hard to see their point.

First of all, the minister has this prerogative now. Every immigration minister overrides the system hun- dreds of times a year in favour of spe- cial cases. In Minister Judy Sgro’s case this included considerable ministerial favour for Romanian ”œworking girls,” a euphemism for strippers, for reasons that were never entirely clear. The Conservatives are proposing to make this a wholesale prerogative as opposed to a case-by-case, retail one. Is it really dastardly for an immigration bureaucrat to recommend that welders willing to work in Alberta should be given special access? For that is what the proposed process would do.

Second, even if you do not believe the Tories’ promise that this bureaucratic power would be subject to parliamentary committee review, would any government be so silly as to make special provision for unem- ployable, unwanted classes of immi- grants? Would they really, for example, favour Tamils over Sikhs on partisan grounds?

I remember being harangued, one late night driving into Stockholm, by a cab driver who explained to me that then prime minister Olaf Palme and the Social Democrats were buying thousands of immigrants from dealers in the Balkans and Africa, importing them into swing constituencies and pay- ing them incredible subsidies, just so that the party could stay in power. Without those immigrants’ votes, he assured me, the government would have been thrown out years before. I suppose it is possible the Harper government has such a scheme as part of its famous hidden agenda. It would be rather challenging to keep hidden.

So if history is any guide, and in the Canadian immigration soap opera it reliably is, this chapter will end like all its predecessors. The new system will be adopted over howls of protest and predictions of disgrace. The back- log will be temporarily cut, until the immigration industry figures out a new way to pump it up again. Immigrant support groups and employers will demand new changes.

A newly elected Liberal government " not, admittedly, a short-term prospect " will attack the mess bequeathed it by the Conservatives, and then pro- pose ”œa new, just and equitable solu- tion to Canada’s immigration nightmare.” It will look very much like previous versions. It will then be vehe- mently condemned by the Conservatives, the NDP and the rest of the usual suspects.

Meanwhile, several hundred thou- sand newcomers will have successfully navigated the immigration minefield, overcome the hidden barriers to the achievement of their dream of a new Canadian life and joined in the realiza- tion of our not entirely shiny new national dream.