CANADA is running out of workers. It’s small wonder. Our birth rate is only three-quarters of the population’s replacement requirement. The baby boom generation that pretty much runs things is aging and approaching retirement. The economy is growing and needs more workers. Unemployment rates have fallen to their lowest in a generation.
In Manitoba, the just-announced and historically low rate of 3.6 per cent comes about as a combination of a reasonably humming provincial economy and the allure of higher wages and more jobs in Alberta that sucks some people westward.
Even with higher wages, Alberta is itself short of workers. Its food services industry alone is short 30,000 workers, according to the June issue of that industry’s national newspaper. In Winnipeg the same industry is also short of workers, restraining expansion and forcing shorter hours.
One obvious solution to the shortage is more immigrants. Last year Canada landed 262,000, which seems a big number until you look back to 1913 when we landed more than 400,000 and Canada’s population was less than eight million. Some estimates now say we should be moving to 400,000 again, and then press for 700,000 by the 2020s.
But who will they be, and where will they come from? What kind of qualifications should they have? The notion that the world waits, bags packed, for us to let it in is a myth. People are more rooted than that. Despite all the world’s problems that might impel many to move, a mere three per cent of the global population lives outside the country in which it was born, according to the UN.
Some Canadians may think that would-be immigrants make objective choices; that they shop among competing nations and choose Canada because "it is the best country in the world." That might be naïve. People don’t migrate without strong motivation. Rooted-ness runs deep in the human psyche. The likely reality is that most people come here because the path has already been travelled by someone to whom they are connected.
But Canadian immigration policy for 60 years has inferentially denied this. It’s the elephant in the immigration room, the huge reality that is seldom mentioned. Immigrants choose Canada largely because they have relatives here. A longitudinal study by Statistics Canada three years ago found that 78 per cent of immigrants surveyed had landed in a region where they had relatives. Some estimates of the "relational connection" to this country range higher, to 90 per cent or more.
Of the 262,000 immigrants who arrived last year, two-thirds either came to join family or came as family members of qualifying immigrants.
People qualifying to enter Canada as skilled workers, business immigrants, or live-in caregivers most often chose Canada because of a relational connection. It is estimated that 90 per cent or more of privately sponsored refugees come to join family who have initiated the sponsorship. Even refugee claimants who may find their way here by circuitous means often do so because they have relatives here.
Ask any member of Parliament who represents a city riding what occupies the time of their constituency office and they will tell you that 70 per cent or more has to do with immigration, usually born of relatives here trying to get someone into the country — and usually frustrated by their inability to do so. Family ties are the pre-eminent driver of in-migration.
Despite this, Canada’s immigration rules for half a century have focused on "qualifying the immigrant." The selection process has us picking carefully in preordained categories. Thus what is largely a "relational" inflow is forced to fit itself into one of the categories that allow one to be admitted as an immigrant, much like the would-be princesses who tried to fit their feet into Cinderella’s slipper.
One has to wonder if there isn’t a less expensive, more realistic and kinder way to land immigrants, to augment families and build our country. Perhaps we could "go with the flow" rather than toss rocks into its course.
Manitoba has the most successful immigration program among the six smallest provinces. Our immigrant inflow is double that of the other five combined.
In 2006 we expect to reach 10,000, and to continue at that level.
There are reasons for this. Recent Manitoba governments have pursued aggressive immigration strategies. It isn’t a political issue. Our real demographic challenges are well understood. The current government’s arrangement with Ottawa allows Manitoba some latitude to tailor its Provincial Nominee Program to local needs while honouring the spirit and framework of federal policy. More than 8,000 immigrants, in all classes, were landed here last year. That’s success by any measure.
Meanwhile, Canada’s labour market strategy that has been the hallmark of federal immigration policy for a very long time has been getting into trouble. Prairie governments complain that Canada’s emphasis on qualifying only the most highly educated and skilled misses the mark, that what is needed are trainable workers.
Immigrants are being admitted with higher job expectations than the reality available here on the ground, which results in frustration and disappointment. The fuss over recognition of foreign credentials, while valid, becomes a red herring when it assumes that the only thing standing in an immigrant’s way to the "right" job is recognition of his or her credentials. There may be no job for that PhD or computer engineer, while oilfield roustabouts or restaurant cooks are needed.
One reason for the success of Manitoba’s nominee program is its insistence on most applicants having a family or relational tie to Manitoba. This criterion weeds out people who may just see Manitoba as an easier window to somewhere else in Canada, and predisposes the successful applicants to stay here because of the family connection. It also facilitates their settlement. The strategy is working.
Thus, in a practical and direct way, Manitoba is helping families reunite and grow, and strengthening the province in the process. In a roundabout way it is recognizing and fitting the reality of the "relational" driver of immigration to our federally limited policy options. It makes good sense. It would be even more sensible if Ottawa would amend its Cinderella’s-slipper approach and acknowledge the force and practicality of relational or family immigration in building the nation.
Tom Denton is chairman of the Manitoba Immigration Council, which advises the province on immigration matters.