Ottawa’s immigration push raises prosperity questions

Federal government aims to bring in 1.2 million immigrants over three years 

SUCCESS CEO Queenie Choo: immigrants’ success in Canada will be determined by employment, language training, cultural integration and housing | Submitted

With physical distancing and limited social circles a fixture of everyday life during the pandemic, Queenie Choo believes more newcomers to Canada than usual may have slipped through the cracks when it comes to support services typically offered to immigrants.

“Certainly our programs and services have pivoted themselves in terms of … maintaining that connection virtually – but it is a different way of doing things,” said the CEO of Vancouver-based immigrant and community services non-profit SUCCESS.

“And on top of that, it’s also the escalation of incidents of anti-Asian racism and bigotry that really layer in additional emotional burdens to people, especially women, seniors and immigrants.”

The past year has been challenging for all, she said.

But Canada is now embarking on one of its largest immigration pushes in recent memory, with Ottawa planning on bringing 1.2 million newcomers into the country over the next three years in a bid to stimulate an economy still bouncing back from pandemic-induced restrictions.

Choo, who immigrated to Canada in 1980, said four major factors will need to be prioritized if the effort is to be successful: employment, language training, cultural integration and housing.

She said significant resources will need to be directed to settlement services as 400,000 immigrants arrive annually – most of whom will be settling in three cities: Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto.

“You can see a lot of business has been down because of the pandemic,” Choo said. “So, [for] many of those talented entrepreneurs, how can we help them to find a niche?”

Among the local programs being readied for deployment is the BC Tech Association’s HyperStart initiative. The entrepreneurial boot camp is in the midst of accepting applications for its 2021 participants and will be focusing on entrepreneurs from new immigrant backgrounds.

Meanwhile, in a February forecast, RBC senior economist Andrew Agopsowicz predicted the country would likely see 275,000 new permanent residents settle in Canada “as COVID-19 headwinds continue, falling short of new 401,000 target.”

Since that forecast, Ottawa invited 90,000 temporary foreign workers and international students already in Canada to apply for permanent residency.

Agopsowicz said in a followup analysis the move could be a “game-changer” for the federal government meeting its target. 

“In the long run Canada does have the capacity to hit the ambitious targets set out last fall, with immigration once again turning into an important driver of long-term population and economic growth,” he said in April.

But economist Jock Finlayson, senior policy adviser to the Business Council of British Columbia, cautioned that while the immigration plan might boost topline economic growth, he does not foresee it increasing prosperity.

“You’ll have a larger market of people living in Canada. They all consume goods and services; they all need housing; a substantial number of them will seek employment and obtain employment,” he said.

“But the real measure of well-being is what’s happening to individual prosperity. For that we look at GDP per person, we look at productivity and we look at what’s happening to average wages and incomes. And on those metrics … there’s really not much evidence that immigration has a significant impact on it one way or the other. It doesn’t hurt.”

Finlayson added it’s not enough to simply boost the country’s population if the goal is to improve the economy on a deeper level.

According to the World Bank, GDP per person stood at US$2,259 in Canada and US$3,007 in the U.S. as of 1960.

That 28% gap between the countries has consistently widened over the ensuing decades.

As of 2019, GDP per person stood at US$46,195 in Canada compared with US$65,297 in the U.S. – a difference of 34%.

During that period, Canada’s population grew from 18 million to 37 million people.

But Finlayson also noted that without population growth, Canada faces a fate similar to that of Japan, in which a stagnant domestic economy prevails.

“I guess the question I would raise is, what does that [immigration strategy] do for prosperity?” Finlayson said. “It’s not clear that that strategy will really deliver big gains – or even any gains – in prosperity as economists would measure it.”

torton@biv.com

@reporton