In 2020, Canada will face a number of challenges. The pressure to create an educated and innovative labour force to compete in the global economy will be immense. The country will have an older population and skyrocketing health care costs.

Immigration will be looked to inevitably as a solution to the nation’s problems and a source of prosperity for Canada. And while it will never be a silver bullet to solve these social and economic challenges, Canadians ignore it to their disadvantage. Already 20 percent of Canada’s population is foreign-born, and some 250,000 new permanent residents, 190,000 temporary foreign workers and 100,000 international students arrive each year. If we are to address future challenges, these numbers will likely increase.

As demographics change, so too must policy responses in a variety of areas. Immigration cannot be seen as in a silo, as the responsibility of only one department or as of interest principally to academics and settlement workers. Rather, as we explore in this article, immigration will transform the labour market, the economy, health care, education, arts, sports and culture. As a result, immigration policy should be of interest to all Canadians, since it will in a large measure define the country’s future economic and social prosperity.

According to the most recent census, 2011 marked an important shift in Canada’s demographics: the number of people of retirement age began to grow at a faster rate than any other group. By 2020 the youngest cohort of the baby boom generation will be 55 and the oldest will be 74. As these individuals leave the labour force, the Canadian tax base will contract, putting more pressure on those who are working to support important government services. Already governments are bracing themselves by trimming their budgets and asking the next generation to pay more for their education, receive less unemployment insurance and work longer before retiring.

Of course, not all the effects of a tighter labour market will be negative. As baby boomers retire in large numbers and jobs go unfilled, wages should slowly increase. For those concerned with poverty reduction, it will be encouraging to see employers reach out to those who have traditionally been excluded from the labour market, such as young people, recent immigrants, Aboriginal people and people with disabilities.

But there are limits to the positive benefits that this kind of labour market pressure can have. As economist Don Drummond explained in a presentation to a group of Toronto-area immigration and labour market policy-makers on May 11, 2012, employers will begin to look overseas to the economies with large and increasingly skilled labour forces such as China and India to outsource larger shares of their labour. Many Canadian companies will struggle to grow in the face of high labour costs, possibly hindering employment growth.

Inevitably, pressure will be put on the government to welcome more permanent residents and to better select them so they have the skills to immediately participate in the labour market. Even the most carefully selected immigrants require services. So too will their families, who will also become part of the labour market. Integration services like language training and mentoring help newcomers improve their economic situation, find skilled jobs and participate fully in Canadian civic life.

It may be that the labour market situation will also encourage the growth of the temporary foreign worker program as a measure to quickly welcome workers to Canada. However, this growth would be problematic. In December 2011, there were 300,111 temporary workers in Canada — the highest number ever recorded. Not all of these workers have access to permanent residence, though they may live and work in Canada for up to four years. As temporary workers they do not have access to federally funded settlement programs. Countries in Europe that had a temporary foreign worker program in the 1950s and 1960s discovered that once work permits expired, the number that desired to stay was significant. Many of these countries now have large marginalized and undocumented populations.

Temporary foreign worker programs may have another, unintended, outcome, that of depressing the wages of the local population, particularly when temporary foreign workers are used to fill jobs that require little training or experience. In early 2012, the government announced that it will allow employers in Canada to pay foreign workers 15 percent less than the prevailing average wage rate. The rationale is that the prevailing wage rate is determined at a national level, but levels of compensation vary from region to region. However, this may prevent wages from rising in some occupations and perhaps create tension between the Canadian population and foreign workers, undermining public support for immigration.

Canadians have traditionally shown high levels of support for immigration, in part because of its positive effects on the economy. When the economy grows, particularly on a per capita basis, Canadians see their standard of living improve. As we understand it, there are two ways the economy grows: through increasing the number of people working so that they can produce more goods and services, or through employing the same number of people and finding ways to make them more productive through, for example, improved processes and technical or scientific innovation. An increase in immigration obviously increases the number of people working. Interestingly, the increased productivity happens as well.

Immigrants, when they are hired at a level commensurate with their training and experience, bring new perspectives to the workforce that can increase creativity and innovation. Research by the Conference Board of Canada, the Diversity Institute at Ryerson University and others has shown that diversity can bring new perspectives to a problem, improve decision-making and increase financial returns.

There are numerous examples of this phenomenon at work. The renowned Hungarian scientist Andras Nagy at Mount Sinai Hospital is leading cutting-edge stem cell research with an international team drawn from 18 countries. He is credited with finding a safer way to reprogram ordinary skin cells into embryonic-like stem cells.

Another example is the Xerox Research Centre of Canada, which provides job opportunities that reflect employees’ work experience abroad and provides some on-the-job language training. Vice-president Hadi Mahabadi led a “diversity of thought” strategy in 2004, drawing on his staff of 89 researchers from 37 countries. Mahabadi was banking — quite literally — on the notion that a diverse group will be more creative and more innovative. Since implementing this strategy, the company has seen a 17 percent annual increase in the number of patented ideas.

This is possible for Xerox and others because Canada draws talent from all over the world. Since the introduction of the points system in 1967, Canada has not relied on just one country or one region for immigration. Recent changes to the selection process, which put a stronger emphasis on language proficiency, may reduce the numbers of immigrants who arrive from many non-English-speaking source countries. This may have implications for the diversity of the population and, as a result, for innovation in the economy.

With higher language levels required for immigration, one implication could be that Canada sees a decrease in immigration from China. But the children of Chinese immigrants do very well in Canada. With China growing as a major world power, it might be short-sighted to reduce the number of immigrants from this country who could help create economic links between Canada and China in the future.

Underlining this phenomenon is a Conference Board of Canada study released in October 2010, which emphasizes immigration’s impact on trade. It found that a 1 percent increase in immigration from a specific country leads to a 0.1 percent increase in the value of Canadian exports, and a 0.2 percent rise in imports.

A highly skilled and educated work-force is also required for innovation.

Immigration serves a dual benefit in this regard. Recent immigrants are more than twice as likely as the Canadian-born to have a post-secondary degree. Also, their children attend university in higher proportions than children whose parents were born in Canada.

When they arrive, many immigrants have difficulty finding work commensurate with their training and experience, and they often return to school to upgrade or enhance their skills. Already some universities have adapted to their new students by offering bridge training programs, which provide targeted academic training for immigrants who require some customized skills upgrading before entering their profession.

Canadians have traditionally shown high levels of support for immigration, in part because of its positive effects on the economy. When the economy grows, particularly on a per capita basis, Canadians see their standard of living improve.

Of course, post-secondary institutions do not attract only individuals who are already permanent residents and citizens. In 2011, there were approximately 240,000 international students studying in Canada from all over the world. Their presence enhances the reputation of Canadian institutions and creates a cosmopolitan and international environment that can enhance the learning experience for domestic students. Their presence also has the potential to improve the lives of students and their families. The story of Teriano Lesancha is a perfect example. Lesancha was from a small herding village in Kenya. She was subsidized by World Vision so that she could become the first in her family to attend university. This year, Lesancha graduated from Ryerson University, and she is already an entrepreneur and a role model for women in her community, where women are usually married as teenagers. She also supports her younger brothers in their academic pursuits.

As a result of the introduction of the Canadian Experience Class (CEC) in 2008, international students such as Lesancha are now eligible to apply for permanent residence. As the CEC becomes more popular, post-secondary institutions will likely see the number of international applicants rise. There are two possible effects of this rise in international applicants. It will enhance the benefits we have described. It will also serve as a growing source of young and talented immigrants who have Canadian credentials and are able to contribute to the labour market.

But post-secondary institutions may become overwhelmed by interest from international students who see a Canadian education as a route to permanent residence and citizenship. In addition, institutions will increasingly come under pressure to provide settlement and immigration advice to students, advice that they are currently not qualified or funded to provide. International students, like temporary foreign workers, are not eligible for federally funded settlement services, until and unless they become permanent residents.

Immigrants, of course, will age alongside their Canadian-born neighbours and require many of the same services. Interestingly though, upon arrival in Canada, immigrants are actually healthier than the Canadian-born, as a result of medical screening that is part of the immigration process. Over time, however, their health outcomes mirror those of the Canadian-born population.

There are likely many reasons for this — for example, change of diet, the stress of immigration and the poverty many immigrants experience in the first years in Canada. However, it has been suggested that the three-month waiting period for many provincial insurance plans upon arrival to Canada may also contribute to this phenomenon. Some immigrants might visit a doctor only when the waiting period is over, delaying preventative interventions and early detection, and creating more health problems and health care costs. Once they are eligible for health care, poverty and a lack of suitable employment can also make it difficult for them to pay for health services — for example drugs — that are not covered by provincial health insurance. As the costs of health care continue to rise, the consequences of these measures will likely be questioned. In this regard, the federal government’s recent changes to the Interim Federal Health Program that limit access to temporary health insurance for refugees could lead to health problems and further health care costs down the road.

Of course, immigrants are not only users of health care services but also its providers. In 2001, almost 22 percent of all practising doctors were internationally trained, and between 2003 and 2007, 31 percent of all new doctors in Canada had received some of their training abroad. In addition, according to research led by Andrea Baumann of McMaster University, in 2006 approximately 7 percent of nurses in Canada were foreign-trained. Hundreds more arrive each year; most will be unable to practise their profession, despite a shortage of medical professionals.

Fortunately, there are many innovative practices that can serve as models as the demands on the health care system become more pressing. For example, at Providence Health Care in Vancouver, newcomer nurses are paired with an established employee to ease the transition into the workplace. The organization also offers cultural awareness training for all staff, and it has a Web site to help newcomers with settlement. In addition, when determining salary levels, Providence Health Care recognizes international work experience at par with Canadian experience.

Institutions, particularly those with cultural significance, are often slow to adapt to changes in the population. For example, DiverseCity Counts research has found that in the Greater Toronto Area, where half the population is foreign-born and 40 percent are visible minorities, the leadership of the region does not generally reflect this diversity.

However, in arts and sports, there are indications that Canada is beginning to embrace, in a truly Canadian way, the diversity of its population. An example is a play featured in the 2011 Toronto Fringe Festival. Called “Kim’s Convenience,” the story centres on a corner store owned by a Korean immigrant in one of the most diverse neighbourhoods of Toronto. What made this play so exciting was that it was billed as a Canadian story and marketed to the broad population. It was not intended to be just a story about immigrants for immigrants.

It’s not just the arts that are changing. In some neighbourhoods, baseball fields are being replaced by cricket pitches, soccer is becoming more popular and hockey organizations think of creative ways to bring immigrants to the game. Organizations realize that to grow, they will need to reach out to audiences of established and new Canadians.

For immigrants, participation in sports and the arts is an important marker of integration. The federal government has recognized this. While sports are not a major focus of settlement funding, changes made a few years ago to settlement services has meant that some sports initiatives are eligible for federal settlement funding.

Although Canada’s immigration program has always been driven by economic factors, its success can be attributed to how the country has balanced these with its compassion and humanitarian interests. The fact that Canada welcomes immigrants to settle permanently, provides them with many of the rights and responsibilities that all citizens enjoy and encourages them to become citizens signals to newcomers that they are valued and welcomed. It gives them and all Canadians the confidence to innovate, evolve and benefit from immigration. It has made immigration an important part of nation-building and Canadian identity.

As Naomi Alboim describes in a forthcoming paper for the Maytree Foundation, recent immigration changes are resulting in some fundamental changes to the immigration program. If current trends continue, in 2020 Canada will welcome even higher numbers of temporary foreign workers and international students. These individuals will be living and working side by side with permanent residents and Canadians, without the same rights and responsibilities. They will likely wait much longer to become citizens, if they ever are eligible at all.

How Canada strikes a balance between those it welcomes for the long term and those it receives for the short term will likely dictate how successful the country will be in maximizing the benefits of immigration. We are optimistic, though, that policy-makers will continue to find the answers to some of the most pressing challenges by drawing on the skills and talents of immigrants. Immigration is, and will continue to be, a driving force in Canada’s economic and social prosperity.

Photo: dennizn /

Ratna Omidvar
Ratna Omidvar is an independent senator from Ontario.
Sandra Lopes
Sandra Lopes is the manager of policy and research at Maytree Foundation.

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