The continuing growth and remarkably diverse composition of the Canada we all know today is thanks to one main factor: historically high levels of immigration.

A well-established multiculturalism policy, positive public attitudes toward immigration and the lack of meaningful success of anti-immigration politics have contributed to Canada’s continued openness to newcomers.

Springboarding off these realities, the pro-immigration lobby group Century Initiative is advocating for increased immigration levels to reach a total population of 100 million by 2100. That would double current projections for population growth.

However, there have been clear signals – especially over the last year – that attitudes are shifting. Following years of high intake of temporary and permanent residents, perceptions that Canada is accepting too many immigrants have mushroomed.

This should be of grave concern for our collective future. Why? Because Canada is in a global competition for talent.

This is especially true in key areas where specialized skills and expertise are indispensable to Canada’s economy. A growing number of countries are also seeking to attract these immigrants to bolster their economies. Canada cannot afford to let slip its attractiveness to highly skilled migrants.

Shifting attitudes are being shaped by several factors, including concerns around housing availability and affordability, high inflation and high interest rates since the pandemic.

Record-breaking numbers of international students – more than one million in 2023 – have been linked to the housing crisis afflicting many communities, leading the federal government to introduce a cap on visa applications for 2024 and 2025 – a decision which will require the provinces with the most students to reduce their numbers.

While overall support for immigration remains high, these recent developments have created an opening for challenges to not only the number of temporary residents, but also to the federal government’s ambitious target of bringing in half a million new landed immigrants per year by 2025.

Inaction by the federal government to address these growing concerns could spell trouble.

Immigration policy key to remaining an attractive destination 

Canada is in a global competition for talent – a fact widely accepted by governments, business groups, academic associations, pro-immigration movements, and organizations promoting entrepreneurship. Each of these groups, , in their own way, supports government efforts to assertively attract and retain highly skilled individuals from around the world.

The most basic argument points to demographic trends indicating the continued need for immigration to maintain population growth, meet labour-market needs and maintain a viable balance between the working and non-working population.

A more specific argument about the race (or “war”) for talent concerns the potential contribution of very high-achieving individuals among the skilled, globally mobile population – top scientists, engineers, artists, entrepreneurs and innovators.

Migration regimes focusing on the “best and the brightest” have grown in popularity, emphasizing highly specialized or extraordinary skills and expertise.

The United States, long a destination of choice for highly skilled professions, has benefitted substantially from the contributions of foreign talent in the higher echelons of scientific and entrepreneurial achievement. Demand continues to outstrip the supply of American H1-B visas, which are granted to highly educated professionals, particularly in STEM fields.

Germany, which has the second-highest number of immigrants in the world after the U.S., has recently introduced its Skilled Immigration Act to help specialized professionals become temporary or permanent residents.

In the U.K., the number of visas in categories of global talent, innovator founders and start-ups has grown dramatically since the pandemic, along with an increased intake of skilled professionals.

Avoiding complacency

Canada has been lauded for its ability to admit skilled immigrants, but its targeted initiatives aiming at recruiting highly specialized talent from around the world have been unimpressive.

The start-up visa program was introduced as a pilot initiative in 2013 to replace the federal entrepreneur program in place since the 1970s, which had come to be regarded as ineffective. The visa program aims to attract innovative entrepreneurs who can create jobs and compete on a global scale.

While the program was renewed after its initial five-year pilot period, it is still not meeting those goals.

Moreover, the start-up visa program has also experienced operational difficulties. With a large backlog in applications reported in recent years and a processing time of 37 months, the program is out of touch with the realities of the entrepreneurial ecosystem.

One blatant sign of the program’s shortcomings is the fact fewer entrepreneurs are being admitted today than under the previous program.

Meanwhile, the Canada Research Chairs Program was established in 2000 to attract and retain “some of the world’s most accomplished and promising minds to foster and reinforce academic research excellence.”

Despite lofty rhetoric and some measure of the prestige it still carries in academic circles, the program’s results remain far from the original vision: 86 per cent of appointments over the past decade have been internal.

Universities mostly nominate their own faculty members as chairs without having to mount a case that they are being recruited by other institutions (let alone universities in competitor countries).

In addition, the value of the financial award made to universities to support the salaries and research of the chairholders has not been readjusted, meaning its real value has declined by 53 per cent. As a result, the program has evolved to become less of a strategic tool to attract the world’s brightest minds and more of a glorified federal subsidy.

Immigration: beyond numbers and controversies

The paradox of immigration policy will require a new model

These two programs are failures both in design and implementation. More worryingly, they also denote a certain lack of seriousness of purpose.

While espousing ambitious goals in line with the demands of the knowledge-intensive sectors of entrepreneurship and academic science, they lack the means to deliver. While periodic program evaluations may raise shortcomings, they ultimately are used to showcase them as successful.

In these cases, bureaucratic self-preservation is sitting in for genuine ambition to keep Canada competitive globally.

More rigorous program reviews

The  urgent debate on immigration needs to place greater emphasis on the tools meant to make Canada a prime destination for global talent.

More rigorous program reviews tied to a fundamental commitment to learning and adapting can help overcome the bureaucratic inertia that allows ineffective initiatives to continue.

Now more than ever, it is essential that Canada strive to attract the most innovative and capable scientific and entrepreneurial minds on the planet.

Experimenting with policy approaches may at times produce disappointing or underwhelming results. But that is less important than trying and learning from putting new ideas into practice so Canada doesn’t fall even further behind in a global race that will shape the future of the country.

Do you have something to say about the article you just read? Be part of the Policy Options discussion, and send in your own submission, or a letter to the editor. 
Creso Sá
Creso Sá is a distinguished professor of science policy, higher education and innovation, and vice-dean of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.

You are welcome to republish this Policy Options article online or in print periodicals, under a Creative Commons/No Derivatives licence.

Creative Commons License