Canada Might Need to Get Off Its Immigration High-Horse

Terhas Ghebretecle and Talha Sadiq 

Against a backdrop of growing anti-immigrant sentiment around the world, Canada is often portrayed as a model for the successful integration of immigrants. But rising inequality and austerity have changed the context for immigrant settlement in Canada.

On February 16, Professor Daniyal Zuberi, RBC Chair and Associate Professor at the School of Public Policy and Governance, spoke about his research addressing “The Immigrant Experience in Canada in the Context of Growing Inequality and Austerity” as part of the Harney Lecture Series at the Munk School of Global Affairs. He presented current trends on integration and settlement, as well as policy recommendations to address emerging challenges.

Immigrant Success: Aspects to Celebrate 

According to Zuberi, many outcomes of Canadian immigration policy deserve to be celebrated. One in five Canadians are foreign born, which is double the per capita rate of the United States. Over the last several years, the annual intake of immigrants in Canada has exceeded 250,000 people. Due to immigration reforms introduced in the last decade, immigrants today are better educated and are often equipped with skills suited to the labour market. Notably, Canadian immigration selection policy is admired internationally, as it successfully attracts highly-skilled immigrants.

In his book, Differences that Matter: Social Policy and the Working Poor in the United States and Canada, Zuberi argues that immigrants fare better in Canada than in the United States because of their distinct social contexts. In particular, he explains how social policies have differentiated outcomes for immigrants in these two countries, highlighting the positive impact that social assistance has on Canadian immigrants. He also emphasizes the role of unionization and better access to health care in improving outcomes for immigrants in Canada.

Key Successful Outcomes:

  • Immigrants are arriving with higher levels of education and skills
  • Upon initial arrival, immigrants earn less income; however, within a decade they are able to catch up and earn a level of income comparable to native born Canadians.
  • Despite working poverty wage jobs, immigrant children have higher levels of educational attainment.
  • University graduation rates among children of immigrants tend to be higher than children with Canadian-born parents.

Looking Forward: Worrying Trends

Zuberi highlights some alarming trends in the current immigration context.

First, the number of temporary immigrants who have come through the Temporary Foreign Worker Program has increased rapidly. In 2014, over 360,000 people were granted a temporary work permit, a 64 per cent increase from 2004. Asking immigrants who have contributed to the Canadian economy to leave is problematic, especially as many of them are highly-skilled workers. Some temporary workers also overstay their welcome eventually becoming undocumented immigrants.

Zuberi further pointed out that while “Canadians think of themselves as much less racist than Americans, the evidence is not clear.” For instance, a 2011 study on employment discrimination in Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver found that résumés with english-sounding names dramatically increased the likelihood of callbacks for interviews. Although candidates in the experiment had identical education and skills, those with English-sounding names were 40 per cent more likely to be chosen for an interview than applicants with ethnic-sounding names.

Finally, Canada has gone through a period of government austerity, which has impacted outcomes for immigrants. For instance, although 74 per cent of unemployed workers were entitled to receive unemployment insurance benefits in 1990, by 2004 only 36 per cent of the unemployed received benefits under the employment insurance (EI) program. Thus, even though workers pay into EI, they are unable to claim benefits when they become unemployed. The demand for social assistance programs has also increased over the years. These measures have specifically increased hardship for immigrants after settlement, increasing working poverty.

Other Concerning Trends:

  • Recent immigrants are facing a rising earning gap, even though they are often more educated, skilled, and experienced than native-born Canadians.
  • Immigrants are unable to secure employment that matches their skills in part due to discrimination of foreign qualifications.
  • Highly-skilled immigrants working as caregivers does not benefit the labour market, as their potential is not utilized and the economic benefits of their skills go unclaimed.

Policy Recommendations

Zuberi presented several policy recommendations to address poor social outcomes for immigrants. His suggestions target both immigration policies aimed at improving integration outcomes, as well as broader policy goals that benefit immigrants more generally.

Immigrant-targeted Recommendations:

  • Improving immigrant selection policy, and emphasizing language fluency
  • Reforming the Temporary Foreign Worker Program to allow highly skilled immigrants to apply for permanent residency status in Canada
  • More settlement services, specifically mentoring programs for immigrant children, and additional employment training for adults
  • Improved foreign credential recognition for Canadian newcomers

General Policy Recommendations:

  • Addressing precarious work by raising the minimum wage
  • Providing universal access to child care, which could be financed through tax revenues from increased labour force participation of parents
  • Providing support to address unaffordable housing, particularly for low-income families
  • Improving publicly funded prescription drug plans to ensure better access
  • Increased support for post-secondary education and training
  • Increased access to mental health services, specifically for children and youth

Undoubtedly, Canada has experienced countless successes in the area of immigration. For this reason, many industrialized countries turn to Canada as an exemplar for integration and settlement policies. Despite these successes, underlying trends and systemic challenges exist that obstruct immigrant populations and their future generations from succeeding.

Terhas Ghebretecle is a Master of Public Policy Candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance. She holds a Bachelor of Public Affairs and Policy Management from Carleton University. She has worked in the Canadian public sector as well as for organizations in South America and East Africa. Her interests include international development, trade and immigration policy. 

Talha Sadiq is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance. He holds an Honours BA in International Development and Environmental Studies from the University of Toronto and most recently worked at the United Nations World Food Programme. His policy interests include health, environment, and international development.