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International conference in Canada calls for full debate on immigration

This story was originally published in the Canadian foreign policy weekly magazine Embassy on 11 Jun 08 as Immigration Debate Needs to Get Serious. It is being reproduced here with the kind permission of the author Michelle Collins.

Days before Bill C-50 was approved, experts warned that Canadians must start taking a realistic look at the country's immigration policies.

By Michelle Collins

MONTREAL—Canadians must wake up to reality and debate on the pros and cons of its immigration system because a serious mistake will be "set in stone for generations to come," a leading migration expert from the UK at conference last week.

Sir Andrew Green, chairman of the UK-based Migrationwatch, was speaking at the second annual international Fraser Institute conference on migration, days before Parliament approved controversial changes to the immigration system.

Speakers at the conference included former diplomats, professors and authors who all had harsh criticisms for the government's handling of immigration over the years, and were adamant that major reforms are needed and fewer immigrants should be admitted.

Throughout the conference, numerous experts urged the government to do more research on migration and charged that Canadians are hiding from debating the issue.

Sir Andrew, whose organization tracks migration flows, said the British government's failure over the years to fully examine and plan for the effects of its rapidly massive immigration rates dramatically changed sectors of society and is one reason 120,000 Britons choose to emigrate from the country each year.

"In Britain, immigration is probably the most important issue of our generation," Sir Andrew said. "I'm not sure if Canada's realized it or not, that it's in a rather similar position."

For years, the debate around immigration has centered on keeping Canada's door for thousands of immigrants wide open—Canada is the only country in the world1 that aims to bring in almost 300,000 people each year.

But there is a growing movement now to re-frame that debate and reform the immigration system in a way that focuses on what's best for Canada and Canadians, namely identifying who will bring the most benefit to the country, how to expedite their entry and how to ensure newcomers become dedicated, loyal Canadians.

Sir Andrew said it is essential Canada's immigration system be reformed, but that the greatest challenge to doing so is a general reluctance to talk about immigration for fear of being perceived as racist. The same attitude was prevalent in Britain, he said, with negative repercussions.

"People [in Britain] now realize it's a subject that can no longer be avoided, the numbers are vastly greater," Sir Andrew said of the British experience. "Net immigration has tripled in the last 10 years, this has alerted the public and now it's impossible to avoid a debate on what needs to be done."

He said surveys show that the majority of Britons feel their whole society is being changed beyond recognition, that the public has never been consulted about this, and that their government has deceived them over a period of years.

"Eighty per cent of the population do not trust the government to be honest and open about immigration," he said.

Also bringing an international perspective for Canadians to consider was Jean- Paul Gourévitch, an international expert on immigration from the University Paris XII, who said emotional sensitivities must be removed from any policy debate about immigration.

"We tried for years to de-emotionalize the debate as much as we could," Mr. Gourévitch said, speaking in French. "Those with different views could at least come together in debate."

Mr. Gourévitch said society's attitude toward immigrants has improved vastly over the last 10 years. He said Canada's problem is rooted in a lack of information and transparency, and that the government should be collecting information and statistics.

"We went nuts to do this in France," Mr. Gourévitch said. "Try to achieve a maximum transparency in the system…try to approach the question of costs."

To gather the necessary information, he recommended Canada establish local and regional reporting bureaus to collect and monitor data on immigrants who move into their areas.

McGill University professor Stephen Gallagher echoed this and said one of the fundamental problems is the lack of proper research and cost data on immigration, and this works to the advantage of emotional appeals.

To that end, he said, Canada stands alone as a country where mass immigration is accepted as a policy norm and is celebrated as an election promise, something that would be political suicide in many other developed countries.

Former executive director of Canadian immigration services James Bissett called the frank discussion at the conference a major step forward for the "thorny issue of immigration." He said immigration is a subject that receives very little attention from the public and as a policy issue.

He said Toronto and Vancouver are on track to becoming "Asian cities," and that this will have significant impacts and should at the very least be talked about.

The conference last week was highlighted with a keynote address from Immigration Minister Diane Finley, who shared what she called "our vision of a 21st century immigration program that will put an end to the sad cliché of doctors driving taxi cabs."

IRPA Changes Praised

On Monday night, the changes she had proposed to the immigration act, which are contained in the budget implementation act, passed a vote in the House of Commons as Liberals abstained in droves.

"I'm absolutely delighted," Ms. Finley said afterward. Ms. Finley said the government will have to wait for the bill to pass in the Senate before implementation legislation can be introduced.

"This still has to get through the Senate," she said. "Once it gets through the Senate, through Royal Assent, we'll be proceeding on it very rapidly."

During the conference, Fraser Institute co-chair Martin Collacott praised Ms. Finley as the first minister to take an interest in what is best for Canada and declared that she had the institute's full support for the changes.

Also delivering high praise was University of Western professor Salmi Mansur, who said immigration is an issue no one wants to touch for fear of being labelled racist, and encouraged Ms. Finley to bring in even more changes.

"Faster, please," Mr. Mansur said. "We need more reform, we need deeper reform, and someone needs to convey that to [Ms. Finley] and the consensus in Ottawa."

But while there was a consensus for change to the immigration policy, most were at odds with Ms. Finley's assertions that this is the solution to Canada's labour challenges.

William Robson, president and CEO of C.D. Howe Institute said another policy option would be to raise the age of retirement to 75.

"Despite discouraging research findings, many Canadians think immigration can maintain growth potential in the workforce," Mr. Robson said. "If immigration is to be the solution, levels would have to be much higher."

Fraser Institute senior fellow Gordon Gibson said Canada's immigration policy is one of "benign neglect" fuelled by Canadians' guilt for having many advantages over others in the world.

Rather than helping by importing people, Mr. Gibson said Canada should increase it's foreign aid spending, which he said is only a fraction of the net cost of immigration.

"The fact that immigration is necessary for economic prosperity is just not true," he said. "Much worse, the fact that it is held out as the answer to an aging society gives the excuse to politicians of not having to address the problems of an aging society.

"If reform is needed, it must be institutional in nature so that all politicians can hide behind it," he said, suggesting that Canada establish a royal commission and an immigration policy think-tank at arms length from the government to lay out facts and options.

He said Canada should dramatically change its priorities from immigration to aid and that any study of immigration should focus on what is good

mcollins [AT] embassymag.ca

Footnotes

1. That changed on 14 May 2004 when Australia's Federal immigration minister Chris Evans announced that Australia's already record high immigration quota would be lifted to 300,000.