Midway through last summer, when much of official Ottawa was away at the cottage, a revealing document landed on the desk of Canada’s top immigration bureaucrat, deputy minister Neil Yeates. Prosaically titled “Social and Economic Outcomes of Second Generation Youth,” the four-page memo showed little regard for the political correctness typical of government correspondence. “Chinese and South Asians are the most likely to have university degrees or higher, and to be employed in high-skilled occupations,” observed the summary, which was prepared by departmental bureaucrats and released recently through access to information. Second-generation youth of Caribbean and Latin American origin don’t fare so well, the memo went on; they tend to obtain lower levels of education than native-born Canadian kids and wind up in less skilled jobs.
To Richard Kurland, the Vancouver-based immigration lawyer who dug it up, the document confirmed “what everybody in the business has known for a long time.” For years, the government has been gathering data on the performance of newcomers and their children based on ethnicity, he notes, and while immigration officials deny they use information to identify the best countries from which to recruit, the numbers tell a different story. Since 1999, China and India have been the top two source countries for immigrants to Canada, averaging about 60,000 landings per year, while the number coming from the Caribbean has fallen sharply. Immigration from the West Indies had fallen 45 per cent below levels seen in the early 1990s, according to figures compiled by Statistics Canada, when more than 16,000 from that region were entering the country annually.
And these days, equipped with new legislative powers, the government is able to pick and choose more aggressively than ever. Bill C-50, passed in late 2008, allows the minister to delay the processing of applications from specific missions abroad in order to speed those from others, and so far the results have been stark. The average wait time for someone wishing to bring a spouse into the country through Kingston, Jamaica has ballooned to 15 months, fully three times the processing time in 2006. A similar application lodged in New Delhi takes just six months.
It would be simplistic to call this profiling. China and India are better represented in Canada’s intake statistics, a senior government official told Maclean’s, because they are rich in skilled, educated people willing to emigrate—not because of ethnic traits, real or imagined: “It’s a matter of basic supply and demand.” As for the memo, a spokeswoman for Citizenship and Immigration Canada would say only that it reflects the department’s ongoing concern for groups “experiencing less positive outcomes from an immigration, settlement and a multiculturalism perspective.”
Still, both the memo and numbers reflect a preoccupation that has come to define the Harper government’s approach to immigration: which applicants offer the greatest long-term value—now or a generation or two down the line? In speech after speech, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney points up pressures wrought by the country’s low birth rate and advancing economy, noting that 100 per cent of Canada’s labour growth will have to come from outside the country by 2016. Under the circumstances, he says, there is little place for electorally driven immigration, in which governments endlessly expanded family reunification quotas in return for goodwill at voting time. “The standard Liberal electoral strategy in the past three decades has been a kind of shameless pandering to immigrant communities,” Kenney charges in an interview. “It didn’t work. They over-promised and under-delivered.”
It all sounds well and good: a system that emphasizes merit rather than familial connection or crass politics. But recruiting 250,000 immigrants per year, as Ottawa hopes to do for the foreseeable future, will require sweeping, some would say un-Canadian, judgments. Do some countries offer better immigrants, on average, than others? Whose children do better? What, exactly, do we mean by “better”? Deciding who gets into the country has arguably never been so important. And rarely has it been so hard.
The idea that we might goose our economy with strategic immigration isn’t new, of course. Clifford Sifton’s “stalwart peasant in a sheepskin coat” was an early 1900s version of today’s “designer immigrant”—an applicant in, say, her late 20s, with a graduate degree and $300,000 in savings. Yet the latter half of the century saw waves of newcomers enter through the country’s other gateway: programs allowing those already here to sponsor family members from abroad. Tradesmen who flooded in from southern Europe in the ’50s and ’60s sponsored their spouses and children, as did women who had arrived from Jamaica, Haiti and Trinidad to work as housekeepers. By 1976, nearly 10 per cent of the country’s immigrants were coming from the Caribbean, though the region represented about 0.6 per cent of the world’s population.
By 1993, with the family-class quotient nearing 44 per cent of the intake, decision-makers were starting to worry. Successive immigration ministers under prime minister Jean Chrétien jacked up the number of so-called economic immigrants—skilled workers, or people with money—pushing family-class applicants’ share of intake down to 24 per cent in 2005. For a party with deep political ties to the country’s ethnic communities, this was risky policy, and soon the Grits were taking heat over a 100,000-case backlog in the number of residents trying to bring their parents and grandparents into the country. In 2005, then-minister Joe Volpe buckled under the pressure, promising to triple the number of family reunification applications the department would process.
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