As Canadians continue to battle COVID-19 by staying in their homes or working on the front lines in the hospitals and clinics, my thoughts turn to a hopeful end of the crisis and a return to normalcy. But the new normal may well be different from the old.
For most of its history, Canada has been an open country. We welcome immigrants at one of the highest rates in the world and despite many challenges, we do a good job of helping newcomers be part of Canadian society. We invest in integration at all three levels of government, and the high-touch system generally delivers the policy objectives of the government of the day. We know that newcomers’ success leads to collective success economically and socially.
But will “open Canada” still exist once the crisis is averted and the borders are reopened? That is a choice we as a nation will have to make.
Certainly this question will be a big one for Canadians and for governments to grapple with. The uproar over medical supplies we sent to China (which has since been repaid by the Chinese government) might be indicative of a “battening down the hatches” mentality. Many will want to keep our borders closed or extremely tightened as US President Trump did recently, temporarily banning immigration to the US. They will argue that the spread of pandemics has roots in the movement of people. Travel will become more restricted, health screenings will be enhanced and there will be a growing push to limit newcomers out of fear of spreading disease.
As someone who was an immigrant, and has worked on immigration issues my entire adult life, I am worried this perspective will prevail. I can understand if it does. But can we afford less immigration?
Before the pandemic, most of the economic models said that Canada needs large numbers of newcomers to help deal with an aging population. Let me make this real for you. In the 1970s, there were roughly 13 seniors per 100 working age people, according to the Century Initiative. But by 2036, there will be close to 40 seniors per 100 workers. Our birth rate is simply not high enough to meet that demand. Many have said we will need workers at all ends of the spectrum – from scientists and professors, to trade workers and caregivers. Immigration and immigrants will need to continue to be part of the solution for Canada to thrive, grow and prosper.
On top of that demographic problem, all Canadian governments, municipalities, provinces and the federal government, are spending billions of dollars to help people struggling with job loss, to help charities provide much needed services on the front lines and support businesses that have limited or no demand for their services. Depending on how long the COVID crisis lasts, we could add over $100 billion to the national debt. How are we going to pay for that down the line? One way would be to continue to welcome newcomers so we can expand our economy to pay our debt, fill essential jobs and generate a constantly growing tax base to pay for our severely stressed social programs.
The pandemic also shows that coordinated global action is needed more than ever. Yes, countries should focus on their own people during this time of crisis, but what is becoming painfully clear is that we need a united global response. What affects one country will affect another. We need global action to deal with such large and ever present threats to humanity. No system of closed borders will stop the spread of viruses like this one. We need international cooperation and international preparedness to truly deal with the next pandemic. It is not whether this will happen again but when. We need to be prepared.
But these arguments are tough to accept when fear is ever present. This pandemic will change the national psyche, and how we respond is an open ended question. We will have a choice to make. Open or closed? This will be the defining issue of our time.
This article is part of the The Coronavirus Pandemic: Canada’s Response special feature.