Why immigration should be a cornerstone of Canada's economic policy

Posted by: James Callsen on June 17, 2014

Canada's labour force is changing. Justin Smith, the Director of Policy for the Calgary Chamber is taking a look at how improvements to immigration can improve Calgary businesses.  Are you passionate about policy? You might be interested in joining one of our committees and you can always join the conversation on Twitter at @Calgarychamber.

The Calgary Chamber was pleased to participate yesterday in the 2014 Western Canadian Immigration Conference organized by the Conference Board of Canada. We spoke on a panel discussing ways to support new Canadians and build an immigration system that is more responsive to the needs of the business community. Throughout the informative and thought-provoking discussion, what became clear was how crucial immigration is to our continued economic growth and competitiveness. In fact, last year was a bit of a turning point when it came to labour market statistics: it marked the first year that Canada's total net labour force growth was 100% attributable to immigration. Put another way, because of baby boomer retirements and other demographic trends, at least for the foreseeable future, growing our workforce, and by extension our economy, will depend wholly on immigration - there simply aren't enough Canadians to keep pace.

That means ensuring the efficiency and proper functioning of our labour market, and ensuring that this market is sufficiently resourced, needs to be the cornerstone of Canada's economic policy, at every level of government. This is particularly true in Western Canada, where a tight labour market is hindering our economic potential; it is limiting our overall output, it is hampering our ability to grow existing industries and diversify into new ones, and it is stifling our capacity for innovation. Despite a solid decade of adjusted approaches and reforms from the federal and provincial governments, and a renewed focus on economic immigration, too many immigrants either lack the skills needed in our market, lack the certification required to practice these skills, or otherwise face significant difficulty in fully integrating into the Canadian economy.

How can we better harness the economic potential of new Canadians moving forward?

Here's a snapshot of some of the ideas discussed at the conference:

Provide adequate support to immigrants who are already here

We need to ensure that the immigrant experience here in Canada is stellar because building trust among today's class of new Canadians is the most effective way of securing our national appeal among potentials immigrants in 20 years, 30 years, 40 years and beyond. The problem is, we aren't doing that right now. In fact, we've witnessed an overall decline in the economic welfare of new immigrants over the last few decades. Nearly 23% of Canadian immigrants live in poverty, compared with an OECD average of 17%. Only 60% of highly skilled Canadian immigrants are working in jobs that actually require a high degree of skill, compared with an OECD average of 72%. Most strikingly, even though the U.S. was hit far more profoundly by the economic recession of 2008 relative to Canada, our immigrant unemployment rate is double that found in the U.S.

Adopting a client-service approach on the part of government when it comes to supporting the business community

Businesses need labour, and they want to play a role in the success of Canada's immigrant population, but they need to be serviced more promptly by federal and provincial government officials when it comes to immigration; processes need to be expedited. We need the government to set hard targets for the processing of requests, and they need to be met. At the very least, the government should be forthcoming and transparent with regard to their performance against these targets on a regular basis, and explain deficiencies. This same client-service approach could be applied to the assessment of

foreign credentials, providing employers with the support they need to evaluate and welcome foreign professionals.

Better target sources of new immigrants

In a recent Ipsos-Reid survey, which analyzed which nationalities were most apt to relocate for work, the top five countries listed were Mexico, Brazil, Russia, Turkey and India. Of that list, India happens to be the only country that Canada effectively targets. Canada needs to market itself and its opportunities better to Mexico, less than 3,000 miles from Calgary, with over 120 million people, but less than 4,000 permanent residents to Canada in 2012. Brazil, a country of almost 200 million, yet only 1,600 permanent residents in 2012. These countrymen and women have expressed a yearning desire to relocate for work, and we are doing ourselves a disservice by neglecting this opportunity.

Conclusion

Solving the issues that currently confront new Canadians is integral to the long-term prosperity of Canada’s economy, not to mention our ability to continue to attract human capital in an increasingly competitive global marketplace. Helping to support those immigrants that have already landed in Canada is a crucial first step. Moreover, encouraging our partners in government to adopt a client-service approach when it comes to processing requests, supporting credential recognition and providing other employment services, will help mitigate much of the risk that businesses associate with hiring immigrants. If these issues are addressed concretely, with an eye to sustainable, practical solutions, Canada will be in a much stronger position to maximize the economic potential that immigration holds.

Justin Smith is the Director of Policy for the Calgary Chamber.