There is a singular narrative thread running through the international media coverage of Canada in the last two years. In one way or another, it is the tale of Canadian exceptionalism.

In October 2015, Canadians elected a centrist party that won over the electorate with talk of openness, diversity and respectful partnerships. The Liberal Party’s cosmopolitanism is voiced by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who inherits a political legacy from his father and is the reverse image of the anti-establishment leaders unseating old candidates like dominoes across the West.

While other countries have closed their borders, Canadians are clamouring to open theirs to refugees. While anti-immigration parties have flattened opponents, Canada’s new majority government vowed to increase immigration and facilitate citizenship. While other leaders have disparaged the United Nations, Canada’s Prime Minister told the General Assembly, “we’re here to help.”

This tale of exceptionalism is both true and not true. What is easily missed is that Canada has long been an immigration leader, and it’s not because this is a country of saints – there are strokes of geographic and historic luck that have enabled Canadian openness. We have also turned our luck into gold through a strategy of managed migration, characterized by hand-picking immigrants and aggressively supporting integration. For many Canadians, this position of advantage carries a certain degree of responsibility to be a leader among international peers, to experiment with policy, and occasionally to take an exceptional position.

If we desire Canada’s immigration future to hold more of the same, what kind of thinking should our policy-makers be engaging into cast forward for the next 50 years?

The answer is that it is time for immigration 3.0.

Version 1.0 managed entry by race. Canada pioneered version 2.0 with the introduction of the points system in 1967, turning away from the racial and geographic biases of the past. In their place a system of merit-based entry unfolded. It worked, and was picked up by other countries eager for the same results. Version 3.0 will build on the lucky accidents of history and geography, but take a more robust view of nation-building in the short and long terms.

Here is what immigration 3.0 might look like. Its characteristics are rooted in values of civility, compassion, proportion, reason and innovation.

Let’s have human immigration categories

Canada should work toward merging the immigration streams. The economic, family, and humanitarian classes are laid out in the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. They have long served as the frame of reference, not only for how people enter the country but how they are treated and evaluated after arrival.

And yet the reality on the ground is much more complex. Economic immigrants are family members who have home obligations, and who may have arrived from precarious or hardship conditions. Family class immigrants, and refugees, are often eager to enter the workforce, to restart careers or open a business. A system that recognizes and supports layered roles and contributions will help individuals set up for longer-term success.

Multi-year immigration targets

In the coming years, Canada should break from the long practice of setting annual immigration levels, and instead test multiyear targets. These could be three or five years, maybe more. Multiyear planning forces us to think in the longer term and enables flexibility. The flexibility to increase or decrease annual numbers within a multiyear window means we can be more responsive to humanitarian and economic demands without sacrificing other needs. For example, in years when there is a particularly high demand for refugee resettlement – including from within Canada – the government could raise its resettlement numbers from a crisis region without carving into another region’s quota. Or, in recession years, the government could reduce the number of people accepted into specific work programs, as economists like Arthur Sweetman and Garnett Picot have advocated.

Second-generation success

One of the key indicators of successful integration is the performance of the second generation. They form a sizeable group, representing nearly 6 million people, or 17.4 percent of the population. Since the second generation is clustered in cities, their share of the urban population is even higher; for example, it is 28 percent in Toronto. We know this group does very well – in some areas like educational attainment, they perform better than peers who have native-born parents. But we also know that the outcomes of children are tied to their parents’ outcomes, and in recent years, as evidence tells us, immigrants are not doing as well as before, with higher and persistent rates of poverty. Additional investments are needed to track and amplify second-generation success. One way to get there is by creating, as Hugh Segal has proposed, a national social data research initiative. But above all, we must renew our focus on ensuring the success of the first generation, because their success engenders the success of their children. Here, there is much room for innovation, but we should continue to invest in proven strategies like bridging and mentoring programs.

The inner workings of government
Keep track of who’s doing what to get federal policy made. In The Functionary.
The Functionary
Our newsletter about the public service. Nominated for a Digital Publishing Award.

Immigration to towns and midsized cities

There are ample reasons to invest in attracting immigrants to communities outside Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. Smaller communities are seeing renewal and growth, and immigrants benefit from these communities’ lower costs of living and sometimes more abundant settlement resources. Robust incentives are needed to realize this vision. Canada has yet to find the silver bullet for attracting and retaining immigrants in towns and midsized cities, although good strides have been made with the provincial role in selection (through the Provincial Nominee Program). The federal government is also piloting an Atlantic immigration program, and the lessons learned there could guide a national strategy. Local governments and private citizens, including employers, will need to play a central role in driving immigration to diverse parts of Canada.

Family reunification

Family reunification must be reimagined as an economic and humanitarian imperative. The costs of separation are high for relatives in Canada, who remit income, experience anxiety and stress, and spend time navigating the immigration bureaucracy. Families who are still abroad can be in precarious or dangerous situations and can feel suspended in time – in education and work – awaiting the green light to go to Canada. As for the potential country-wide returns from keeping family units together, open and swift family reunification would enhance the competitiveness of Canadian immigration, and could feed into efforts to attract immigrants outside major cities. Research shows that even more than the size of one’s cultural community, what draws immigrants to a particular region is the presence of friends and family. As Picot and Sweetman noted, “smaller communities can build on family and friendship ties to attract and retain new immigrants.” A model is the growing Filipino community in Winnipeg, which is an example for other mid-sized cities that aim to meet twin objectives of settlement and revitalization.

Deeper diversity

Canada is diverse, but positions of power on the whole are not. Major strides have occurred in some sectors, and especially in entry- and mid-level positions. But immigrants and visible minorities still encounter barriers, are still shut out of top positions, and still must submit more CVs for the same shot at an interview as their peers. All sorts of barriers, including bias, are behind this. For example, research shows that in Canada, Matthew is 40 percent more likely than Samir to get a call for an interview. Bias that results in a preference for those who look and sound like us can be unconscious, making it particularly difficult to root out. A view of immigration as nation-building requires that we redouble our efforts to diversify positions of power and influence, especially in governance.

We are all integration actors

Canadians’ response to Syrian refugee resettlement outstripped expectations. It validated outgoing Immigration Minister John McCallum’s characterization of these efforts as a “nation-building project.” It provided a glimpse of the vast resources that can be mobilized in the private sector for resettlement. A phrase that sings to me is that we are all integration actors. Cities perhaps more than other levels of government know this well – as cities are where integration in all its beautiful and rough variety hits the ground. Locally, integration is the business of police forces, teachers, city planners, and bank tellers. The Syrian refugee resettlement brought even more actors to light. The challenge for government is finding ways to sustain the social infrastructure developed during this period. Building on this legacy will deepen the ties between communities and newcomers, and over time it will obliterate the delineations of “us” and “them.”

A new role for First Nations in welcome and inclusion

For all its imagination and innovation over time, for all its light, the settlement sector continues to nurture some darkness. First Nations peoples are not fully included in the welcoming and integrating of newcomers. There is barely a trace of an emotional connection between these groups, the fastest growing in Canada, even though there is a richness of shared experiences. There are examples of good practice in some Canadian communities, like the one in Vancouver, but overall the leadership and contributions of First Nations are missing. This is a loss for everyone. At stake is the same type of two-way benefit and regeneration that other communities experience with immigration. Canada must work in partnership with First Nations communities so they reimagine their role as active participants in welcome and inclusion. A good start would be to implement Truth and Reconciliation Commission Call to Action 94, to replace the Citizenship Oath and include a reference in it to treaties.

Finally, a word on the Canadian people. No matter the system, immigration only works with public support. A glance at global politics should reinforce that this support cannot be taken for granted. Rather, governments must be deliberate in telling and showing the story of immigrant success over time. Immigration is a story of patience, investments and dividends, because it is a long-term project. It is nation-building.

This article is part of the Public Policy toward 2067 special feature.

Photo: Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

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. Here is a link on how to do it. | Souhaitez-vous réagir à cet article ? Joignez-vous aux débats d’Options politiques et soumettez-nous votre texte en suivant ces directives.

Ratna Omidvar
Ratna Omidvar is an independent senator from Ontario.

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

Creative Commons License