Better a Flow than a Flood

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Appeared in the Globe and Mail, September 17, 2003

Some Canadians seem to think that a preference for moderate immigration levels reflects hostility toward immigrants. This is absurd. Many immigrants themselves would prefer lower immigration levels, yet when Canadians make this point, we are attacked.

I spent 25 years in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. I speak Chinese. My wife is from Vietnam. Because two of my recent papers for the Fraser Institute on immigration policy have attracted such criticism, it’s necessary to make the moderate immigration argument once more.

There are various reasons why immigration is good for Canada. But a recent column by The Globe’s John Ibbitson calling for higher immigration levels just doesn’t hold water. He claims, for example, that the economies of Canada, Australia and the United States have consistently outperformed those of other developed nations, and that not co-incidentally, these three are immigrant countries. The fact is, however, that developed countries such as Ireland and Singapore have fared considerably better economically -- and without significant immigration programs. While Canada has had a much higher immigrant intake per capita than Australia and the United States in the past decade or so, our economic growth in the same period has lagged behind the other two.

The argument is often made that Canada needs large-scale immigration to compensate for the population decline that will begin several years hence because of our low birthrate. This statement is misleading to say the least. According to Statistics Canada projections, if there is no change in our fertility rate, our population will continue without any net immigration to increase moderately until 2018, and will not fall below current levels until 2026. These estimates hardly provide support for a significant increase in immigrants at this juncture.

It is certainly true that immigration has benefited Canada. Among other things, it has in recent decades enriched our society through the diversity it has brought to our shores. On the other hand, activists such as Immigration Minister Denis Coderre who try to justify high immigration levels on the basis of looming labour shortages are doing a disservice to newcomers and Canadians alike. My Fraser Institute paper Canada’s Immigration Policy: The Need for Major Reform indicates that, rather than facing a general shortage of skilled labour, we probably have an unutilized pool of labour.

Despite this, Canada keeps enticing tens of thousands of skilled immigrants who leave good careers in their home countries only to face major difficulties in finding suitable employment here. Recent newcomers experience higher levels of unemployment, earn considerably less, and have higher poverty rates, than either earlier immigrants, or the Canadian-born. Worse, the vast majority of newcomers go to overcrowded metropolitan areas such as Toronto -- something even the federal government admits is undesirable.

While Ottawa has plans to try to get more immigrants to settle where the population is in decline, efforts to do this in other countries have met with limited success. The Liberal government will probably continue to try to squeeze ever-increasing numbers into the large cities as long as there are reasonable expectations that these people will throw their political support behind the party in power.

While immigration can be very beneficial to Canada and to newcomers alike, there are clearly major problems with our current policies -- policies driven more by political concerns than the best interests of either the country or the immigrants themselves.

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