Opinion Canada must support the migrants it’s letting in to fill jobs

(Washington Post staff illustration; iStock)
(Washington Post staff illustration; iStock)

Facing critical labor shortages, Canada recently released a plan for admitting, over the next three years, an unprecedented 1.45 million foreign nationals as permanent residents. There’s no question that the government’s “Immigration Plan to Grow the Economy” will address that shortage; due to Canada’s aging population and low birthrate, immigrants already account for nearly all the annual growth in the nation’s labor force. But unless the plan is matched with comprehensive strategies for settling and supporting new arrivals, Canada risks perpetuating a history of treating immigrants as grist for the labor mill while largely leaving them to fend for themselves when it comes to the necessities of life.

“You’ve heard 500,000 people are coming,” Refugee 613 director Louisa Taylor told me, referring to the number of immigrants who may arrive in a single year. “We have not heard yet how we are going to scale up to make sure that these folks find the jobs, find the homes and get the support that they need — whether it’s language training, mentorship or community connection.”

Canada does offer “newcomers,” as they are often called, a broad range of settlement services, both governmental and private. But the intersecting and overlapping responsibilities of municipal, provincial and national agencies, as well as nonprofit groups, educational institutions and businesses, mean it’s a complicated system for immigrants to navigate — and for settlement agencies to administer. Meanwhile, the people working in those agencies complain of inadequate and inconsistent funding. “Putting an onus on us to constantly fight for funding … really takes away from the work that we actually do,” one worker told New Canadian Media.

The immigration plan will focus on attracting immigrants in Canada’s “economic category” who can work in sectors facing acute labor shortages, including manufacturing, technology and the building trades. Also important is health care, especially since the aging population that helped create the labor shortage also fuels a greater need for medical workers and caregivers. Addressing the labor market’s needs requires that the country can settle newcomers with relevant education and experience in parts of the country where they are needed, make sure their credentials are recognized and get them hired.

“There is a stigma still around employers hiring folks with limited Canadian experience or who may have immigration status,” Will Tao, an immigration and refugee lawyer, wrote in an email. “I have had many newcomer clients … who came to Canada, but were never able to convert their qualifications.”

He added: “Often times, there is this misperception or myth that Canada is a panacea for a migrant’s problems, but as growing accounts are showing, many are leaving what [were] once middle class/comfortable/family lives for a new environment that fails to recognize their worth or provide opportunities. … I have seen too many families break down during the process.”

There’s often “a lack of culturally competent services,” Tao said, for people facing such mental health problems. “I would say that is the biggest challenge — and I do fear that issues such as depression and suicide may go under the radar without data tracking.”

Settlement of newcomers is particularly challenging because of Canada’s ongoing housing shortage, and many immigrants struggle to find a place to live. A 2018 survey found that 1.4 percent of immigrants were at some point “unsheltered,” and 11.9 percent of immigrants had experienced “hidden homelessness” — defined as “having to live temporarily with family or friends, or somewhere else because the person has nowhere to go.”

It’s true that, compared with other developed countries facing both labor shortages and immigration pressures, Canada offers a relatively welcoming environment. Last month, the government statistics agency reported 23 percent of the country’s population were immigrants. Canadians generally approve of the situation: A study by the Environics Institute, also reported last month, found that 69 percent of respondents disagreed with the statement, “Overall, there is too much immigration to Canada.” The most recent Gallup poll of international attitudes toward migrants called Canada the “most-accepting country” in the world.

But the transactional nature of Canada’s immigration policy is evident from the categories immigrants fall into. More than half of recent immigrants are in the “economic category,” and the new plan aims to increase that figure to more than 60 percent by 2025. Meanwhile, though another stated goal of the plan is “reuniting more families faster,” it commits to a mere increase of roughly 12,000 people a year in the family unification category. And despite promising “a safe haven to those facing persecution,” the plan specifies a slight decrease — about 3,000 people a year — in the number of refugees the country admits.

Canada will continue to use immigrants as economic tools. It always has. It’s what the country does. But it’s an open question whether Canada will at least ensure immigrants can get the jobs, housing, health care and community support that they deserve.