Research examining the economic and social well-being of new immigrants as they integrate into Canadian society is critical for informing the policies that regulate their selection and settlement. This research relies critically on data that identify whether respondents were born outside Canada and, if they were, the year or period in which they immigrated. By examining average economic outcomes such as employment rates, labour market earnings and family incomes of new arrivals, according to the number of years since immigration, one obtains invaluable evidence on the economic assimilation of immigrants.

Over the years, the vast majority of this research has relied on data from Canada’s long-form census, which since 1901 has identified not only whether respondents were born outside Canada, but also the period in which foreign-born respondents immigrated. Historically, asking immigrants about the year in which they immigrated to Canada was unambiguous, as “arriving” and “landing” in and “immigrating” to Canada were synonymous. Before the point system was introduced in 1967, new immigrants would be processed upon landing on Canadian soil (most famously at Pier 21 in Halifax), and if the basic health and employability screens were cleared, they would immediately become permanent residents.

By 1967, the system was changing to become one where prospective immigrants applied for immigration overseas, but, as before, successful applicants became permanent residents on the day they physically arrived in Canada.

Today, “two-step immigration” is becoming more common, where people come into the country on a temporary work permit or student visa and subsequently gain permanent resident status. According to data from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, 31 percent of new permanent residents in 2012 were already living in Canada when they obtained their official status (the time of “landing”), compared with 20 percent in 2000. Moreover, Temporary Foreign Worker and international student inflows, and the new Express Entry System with its emphasis on pre-arranged employment and Canadian educational attainment, suggest Canada will soon follow Australia, where two-step immigration is the norm. This matters for the collection of immigration data, because the terms “year of arrival,” “landing” and “immigration” are no longer synonymous. This means that the wording of survey questions is important.

The 1971, 1981 and 1986 long-form census questionnaires asked all respondents who were not Canadian citizens by birth: “In what year did you first immigrate to Canada?” For individuals who lived in Canada before “landing”, the question was ambiguous. Does it refer to the year in which they first arrived in Canada as temporary residents or to the year in which they obtained permanent residency? This ambiguity was addressed in the 1991 census, by first asking all foreign-born respondents the question: “Is this person now, or has this person ever been, a landed immigrant?” For those responding “Yes,” this was followed by another question: “In what year did this person first become a landed immigrant in Canada?” Statistics Canada has included this two-part question in every quinquennial census since 1991, and in the 2011 National Household Survey.

The process of economic assimilation, including learning English and/or French, building social networks and accumulating labour market skills, begins on arrival in Canada.

While the current census question is unambiguous, it captures information that, increasingly, is not of primary importance. The process of economic assimilation, including learning English and/or French, building social networks and accumulating labour market skills, begins on arrival in Canada, whether as a permanent or a temporary resident, not at the time they receive their permanent resident status. In empirically identifying assimilation, we want to compare the economic outcomes of immigrants with varying years since first coming to Canada, but census information based on years since landing will understate time in Canada for former temporary residents, which will tend to attenuate the degree of assimilation.

In response to a growing demand for more timely information on the labour market outcomes of immigrant workers, in 2006 Statistics Canada added a series of questions on immigration to its regular monthly Labour Force Survey (LFS). Unfortunately, the question was taken directly from the census, so the survey — Statistics Canada’s other major source of data on immigrants — provides no information on years spent in Canada as temporary residents.

Some recent Statistics Canada surveys did ask for the year of arrival of immigrants. For example, the 2013 and 2014 General Social Survey questionnaires included the standard two-part census question identifying landed-immigrant status and year of landing, as well as the separate question, “In what year did you first come to Canada to live?” As well, the 2012 Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies questionnaire included the two-part census question and the question, “How old were you when you first came to Canada to live or in which year did you come? You may have first come to live in Canada on a work or study permit or as a refugee claimant.”

Given the growing importance of two-step immigration to Canada, it is time for Statistics Canada to revise the long-form census and LFS questionnaires to better capture the time immigrants spend in Canada before becoming permanent residents. While having information on year of arrival and landing is optimal, capturing information on years since arrival should be the priority.

Photo: Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

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Mikal Skuterud
Mikal Skuterud is a professor of economics at the University of Waterloo. For the past year he has been tracking the labour market impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and its potential long-term effects. Twitter @mikalskuterud

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