Is the federal immigration system a failure?

The Harper government seems to think so, but the stats tell a different story
A skill question
Photograph by Cole Garside

Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney sees deep flaws in Canada’s immigration system. For too long, he argues, the system has been drawing ambitious newcomers who arrive here ready to work only to find their qualifications aren’t recognized, their experience isn’t valued, or their skills aren’t in demand. “We’ve got to stop this practice,” he said in a major speech in Toronto last month, “of inviting highly trained people to come to Canada if they don’t have jobs or they’re not likely to succeed in the labour market.”

As one of the most visible federal ministers, Kenney has made sure his critique of the system he runs is widely heard and broadly accepted. In particular, companies echo his complaints about Canada bringing in 250,000 newcomers a year, and still failing to provide the workers they need to fill gaps, particularly in the fast-growing West. But as Kenney continues his withering attack, it’s worth asking: Is the federal program really the unmitigated disaster he suggests? Not by international standards, where Canada is rated highly for its successful integration of immigrants into the economy, or even by some of the yardsticks Kenney has been using to argue Canada’s existing immigration system needs to be completely overhauled.

Some of the clearest evidence showing the program’s success comes from Kenney’s own department. For instance, Kenney points to the so-called provincial nomination program—through which provinces bring in immigrants chosen to fill job vacancies—as the model for reform. But according to figures provided to Maclean’s by Citizenship and Immigration Canada, any edge enjoyed by the provincial programs is small and short-term. The average yearly earnings for provincial nominees range from $35,200 to $45,100. That’s only better at the high end than the $36,400 to $42,700 average range for the earnings of immigrants who entered Canada through the federal skilled workers doorway. And by the fifth year after arrival, according to Citizenship and Immigration Canada data, the federal skilled workers’ incomes outpace provincial nominees by, on average, $2,000 to $7,000 a year.

Still, it’s beyond dispute that new immigrants are taking longer to get established than they did in previous eras. As recently as the 1970s, they earned about the same as Canadian-born workers. But nearly every group of newcomers since has been worse off. By the 1990s, recent male immigrants earned half as much as Canadian-born males the same age. By 2000, more than a third of them were classified as officially “low income.”

So Canadian immigrants haven’t been thriving, at least not in the very short term, and Kenney aims to change that. Under proposals he’s floated in increasing detail in recent months, he’s signalled that he intends to overhaul the programs that make up Canada’s traditional points system for selecting immigrants. The goal is to give employers more of the kinds of workers they need right now and to bring in immigrants who are likely to have their qualifications recognized and be able to work in their own fields right away.

Employers will be given more say in selecting immigrants—possibly through a global “job bank.” Newcomers who speak one of Canada’s two official languages will be given higher priority, and professional qualifications will be assessed before applicants are accepted, rather than after they’ve arrived in Canada.

Still, putting the focus on an applicant’s short-term prospects ignores longer-term considerations. While many immigrants have struggled in their early years as Canadians, their kids have thrived. Even as income levels for first-generation immigrants have fallen over the last 30 years, education levels for their children have remained well above the Canadian average. That’s true even for families in which the parents weren’t university educated.

Dr. Andrew Brown’s father, for instance, immigrated from Jamaica in the late 1970s. His mother followed a few years later. The elder Brown initially struggled in menial jobs. Even after he established himself at Canada Post, both parents had to work to keep the family afloat. After school many days, Brown would microwave hot dogs to have something to eat before his parents got home at 7 p.m. or later.

His parents were never well off. Neither went to university. Statistically speaking you might count them as failures, in an immigration sense. But Brown did go to university, then to medical school. Today he’s a resident in medical imaging at the University of Toronto where he’s studying the next generation of non-invasive cancer research.

That’s not an unusual story. Second-generation Canadians tend to perform better in school, are more likely to earn university degrees and often earn more than children of Canadian-born parents, even if their parents earn low incomes. By moving so fast to overhaul the system, some experts worry the government could put those patterns of next-generation achievement at risk.

Putting more emphasis on English and French proficiency could mean taking in fewer immigrants from areas that tend to show solid multi-generational success. More than 62 per cent of second-generation immigrants with parents born in China have a university degree, for example, compared to just 24 per cent of those with Canadian-born parents. But Chinese immigrants as a whole haven’t typically had the best English or French language skills.

Kenney is aware that second-generation immigrants and what are known as 1.5-generation immigrants—those who came to Canada as children—do well. But he says that isn’t playing a significant role as he retools the system. “We can’t select people on the basis of how their children or grandchildren might succeed,” he says. “Although, and here’s the point, by selecting people who are more likely to succeed quickly in Canada’s economy, I think we’re ensuring that their children and grandchildren will do even better.”

He also says changing the language requirements in a way that might cut the number of immigrants from Asia isn’t a worry. The children of immigrants, no matter where they’re from, are typically going to succeed, he says. “They grow up in aspirational families. They grow up in families that take nothing for granted. They grow up in families that put a huge value on education and quite frankly are pretty forceful and disciplined about making sure their kids do well in school.”

Kenney stresses that employers—not bureaucrats—know best what kinds of workers they need. But giving employers a huge say in the system doesn’t always guarantee success, says Arthur Sweetman, a professor and Ontario Research Chair in health human resources at McMaster University. Companies’ needs, he points out, can change quickly. Before the tech sector busted in the early years of the last decade, there was a huge push to bring immigrants with computer skills into the country. After the crash, many of them ended up unemployed. “Canada wants citizens, employers want employees,” Sweetman says. “Employees are for the short term; citizens are forever.”

Above almost any other factor, Kenney touts the advantage of an immigrant having a Canadian job waiting before landing here. There’s no disputing that is a key factor. More than half of provincially nominated immigrants arrive with a pre-arranged job offer. Since 2005, their average earnings have reached or surpassed Canadian averages within one year of arrival. And since they are chosen specifically to fill the immediate needs of companies, there’s pressure from those employers to expand the program. Across all provinces, it has ballooned from 6,000 immigrants in 2004 to a planned 42,000 this year. And the growing provincial stream has funnelled immigration away from the old dominant cities of Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. Provincial plans have tripled immigration to the Prairies and doubled Atlantic Canada’s intake of newcomers.

On the other hand, only about 14 per cent of immigrants admitted as federal skilled workers have a job waiting for them in Canada. Even so, they do remarkably well—making on average $72,700 in the year after landing, and seeing their salaries rise to $79,200 within three years. Those who don’t quickly enter the workforce have a harder time getting established—but so do native-born Canadians. Research by David Green of the University of British Columbia and Christopher Worswick of Carleton University has found that about half of the decline in earnings for new immigrants, compared to those who arrived in the 1970s and earlier, stems from the same tougher economic conditions faced by native-born Canadians entering the workforce.

So is the existing federal skilled workers program that Kenney is setting out to reform all that bad? It seems to outperform the provincial alternative after five years. While immigrants overall aren’t succeeding as rapidly as in the past, neither are young native-born workers. And new Canadians fare well by global standards, too. When the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development probed the job markets for immigrants in its member countries in 2007, Canada was found to come the closest to equal employment rates between Canadian-born and foreign-born workers.

None of this is to say Kenney is wrong to bemoan the “regrettable decline in the economic results for newcomers to Canada.” The 21st-century uphill climb facing immigrants is indisputable. But as he lays the groundwork for a policy overhaul, Canada’s highest-profile immigration minister in memory seems fixated on the weaknesses of the system he inherited, and under-emphasizing its continued strengths.