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Amal Attar-Guzman: If my parents came to Canada today, would they still be set up to succeed?

Commentary

My first reaction to the federal government’s recently announced immigration plan aiming to boost the economy?

“Wow, that’s a really great initiative!” 

I was not alone. It received praise on the global stage, and, despite some decreases in refugee and humanitarian class targets, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees applauded “Canada’s leadership on refugee resettlement” and further welcomed its commitment to accept refugees “as part of its overall immigration growth plan.” 

The in-take targets are substantial: 465,000 permanent residents in 2023, 485,000 in 2024, and 500,000 in 2025. Further, as highlighted in the Fall Economic Statement, Canada will also welcome at least 40,000 Afghan refugees and create a new permanent residence stream for Ukrainians who wish to stay in the country. 

Canada is well-known as an immigrant-welcoming nation, and the numbers are backing that up. As of 2021, almost one-quarter (23 percent) of the population was, or had ever been, a landed immigrant or permanent resident in Canada.This is the largest proportion of the population to be foreign-born since Confederation (topping the previous record of 22.3 percent in 1921) and outshines peers such as England and Wales (16.8 percent) and the U.S. (14.6 percent).

The federal immigration plan makes sense from an economic and labour perspective. Canada has been going through labour shortages in almost every sector, especially in health care, manufacturing, STEM, and the trades. And though the looming recession might ease labour shortages, this is hardly a long-term solution.

Additionally, our rapidly ageing population combined with our rapidly declining birth rates mean that labour shortages are sure to be common occurrences in the short- and long-term. Current immigration admission seems to be responding to these challenges since two-thirds of new immigrants are of working age. 

Not only does immigration maximize economic potential but it also maximizes innovation and growth potential, something sorely needed in Canada. So long as it continues on its path, Canada is set to be a demographic superpower where innovation and dynamism should benefit as a result. 

This is a story that hits close to home for me. Like so many others, both my parents arrived in Canada as refugees in the late ‘80s and were already citizens by the time I was born in the late ‘90s. 

Despite great challenges, fear, and the uncertainty of arriving in a country that is so different from their own, they were both able to have a new start, safe from war and conflict. 

However, just as quickly as that first sentimental thought came to mind, trepidation set in:

“Are we ready to accommodate these folks?” 

Keep in mind, the Canada that my parents settled in is a much different Canada than the one we see today. By the time my parents arrived, the early ‘80s recession was over. While inflation was high and unpredictable, unemployment was low and GDP was steadily growing. Renting or buying a home back then was a common reality rather than a lofty dream. Things were relatively affordable. And while they lived through a recession in the early ‘90s, by then they had accumulated some economic capital to weather that storm. 

This is not the environment current immigrants are finding today. Canada is facing a high inflation rate, housing and renting issues, rising cost of living, and current infrastructure challenges. And these trends are especially present in cities that are major hubs for newcomers: Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver

Now, while immigration itself does not spike housing costs, current trends from wage stagnation to lack of supply are exacerbating the housing crisis. Rising rental costs are another constant challenge that many Canadians have been feeling for quite some time—pressures that can be exacerbated by immigration due to broad rental legislation.

If the supply is not proportionate to the higher numbers of immigrants coming into Canada, and if the issue of affordability is not managed, new immigrants will be placed at a greater disadvantage and in a much more tenuous position, especially since they are on average more economically vulnerable than the average Canadian. This state of affairs has been amplified by the pandemic. 

The lack of sustainable infrastructure in Canada is another challenge. Prior to the pandemic, Canada’s infrastructure deficit range was estimated from $110 billion to $270 billion, and our infrastructure is lagging behind other peer countries. Ontario’s population is set to increase by 30 percent—an amount of over 19 million residents—in just over 20 years. The province is simply not ready to accommodate that growth.

All in all, across Canada our infrastructure is not sustainable with the current population growth. We are not building enough to manage.

Now, to alleviate the burden on immigration hubs, the federal government does plan to increase focus on attracting newcomers to different regions of the country, including small towns and rural communities. This, however, comes with its own deeply entrenched challenges. 

These range from inadequate housing, public transportation, and infrastructure, limited employment opportunities, underemployment, and barriers to entry into established networks. 

More complications arise in the case of intergovernmental immigration agreements between the federal and provincial governments. While the federal government does have the jurisdiction to issue its immigration policy and set these national targets, it will be up to the provincial governments to accept specific amounts of new immigrants to their province. Quebec specifically has already pushed back on the matter.

Goals are one thing. Failure to provide adequate support once real people are really here has consequences. Consider the case of Aziza Abusirdana, a Palestinian refugee who stabbed herself in the stomach while meeting with an Immigration Refugees and Citizenship Canada official. She claimed it was in response to a lack of affordable housing, rising costs of living, and a lack of mental health services. She’s not the only refugee driven to self-harm or thoughts of suicide. Other underlying societal issues, such as racism, xenophobia, and/or intolerance, as well as our failure to recognize foreign credentials, are further impediments to those seeking a better life.

While these challenges are complex and multi-layered, that is not to say they are insurmountable. Integrating new immigrants is a difficult whole-of-society task, but it is both laudable and doable—if proper care and consideration are given to the effort. Indeed, it may be necessary to combat labour shortages. Unfortunately, the federal government’s habit of announcing grand goals and leaving the provinces and the rest of the country to sort out the logistics is not doing anybody any favours.

The new immigration plan can give Canada the economic boost it needs while expanding our multicultural fabric, but we must proactively fix the broader societal issues plaguing us now or we risk exhausting the goodwill of fellow Canadians and hindering immigrants themselves. And the sooner the better. 2023 is right around the corner.

Sean Speer: As global tensions rise, Canada cannot afford an uncertain China strategy

Commentary

Yesterday was an eventful day in Canada’s evolving relationship with China. A series of separate yet related developments reflect the complexity of managing Canada-China relations and the need for a clear-headed strategy rooted in our national interests.

It started with a joint statement from U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping from the G-20 summit in Indonesia that struck a far more conciliatory tone than we’ve heard in months. The two leaders downplayed their countries’ geopolitical and technological rivalry (“there need not be a new Cold War” said Biden) and even dismissed the prospects of “decoupling and severing supply chains” because they “run counter to the principles of [the] market economy and undermine international trade policies.”

The impetus for the renewed message of cooperation is undoubtedly less about a long-term rapprochement and more about the short-term exigency of Russia’s potential use of nuclear weapons. Biden and Xi were unequivocal: they oppose “the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine.” This isn’t the first time that Xi has signaled his opposition either. He said something similar earlier this month following a meeting with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Beijing. 

This common front is vital because as the West has come to isolate Russia with economic sanctions (including cutting energy exports) its economy has become increasingly reliant on China to such an extent that has come to be characterized as a “junior partner” and even a “vassal state” in the Chinese sphere of influence. China has in effect become the principal brake on Russia’s military escalation into highly dangerous territory.  

Yet even as Biden and Xi talked up the need for cooperation on the nuclear file as well as climate change and food security, there were powerful reminders that the relationship between their countries has undergone something of a permanent rupture. It may not be a new Cold War per se but there’s no going back to the post-Cold War promise of what historian Niall Ferguson famously called “Chimerica.” 

The first was a CBC report that the U.S. military is examining options to invest directly in Canadian mining projects that involve critical minerals for civilian and military products such as batteries, cars, electronics, and weapons. The news follows a recent announcement from the Trudeau government that it has ordered three Chinese companies to sell their interests in Canadian mining projects following a natural security review. 

The two stories—effectively trading American state investment for Chinese state investment—indicate a concerted effort on the part of the Canadian and American governments to protect North America’s supply of critical minerals from China. It stands in sharp contrast to Biden and Xi’s lip service to “the principles of the market economy” and instead represents a political economy view about the trade-offs between national security and fidelity to free markets in our relationship with China.

The second development is breaking news that a Hydro Quebec employee has been charged with espionage for sending secrets to China. It follows last year’s story that two infectious disease scientists at the Public Health Agency of Canada are similarly under RCMP investigation for allegedly sharing sensitive information with Chinese authorities. These cases of high-level espionage involving strategic assets and even dangerous materials are a small window into Chinese efforts to gain access to Canadian institutions and steal ideas and secrets. 

That they follow a shocking report of political interference in the 2019 Canadian federal election—including funding a “clandestine network of at least 11 federal candidates”—is bound to reinforce the Canadian public’s overwhelming sense that we must revisit the basic assumptions of our relationship with China. 

The Trudeau government has been slower to move on this front than most of its western counterparts. It came to office with big ambitions for the Canada-China relationship—including a comprehensive free trade agreement—and seemed inclined to look away from the mounting evidence that Xi’s China is neither a reliable trading partner nor “responsible stakeholder.”

The mountain, however, eventually became too large to overlook. The unlawful detention of the two Michaels and the Chinese government’s ongoing obfuscation about the origins and spread of COVID-19 (which, by the way, ought to be a far bigger deal than it is) seem to have represented something of a crossroads.

In recent weeks, Ottawa has signaled a new course. The Trudeau government has committed, at least in rhetorical terms, to abandon its own Sinophile instincts. The Industry Minister, François-Philippe Champagne, spoken about the need for “decoupling.” And in a recent speech at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, Foreign Affairs Minister, Melanie Joly, called China an “increasingly disruptive global force” and warned Canadian companies about the “geopolitical risks linked to doing business with the country.” 

Champagne’s recent comments are especially notable because they epitomize the government’s slow yet significant shift. He was international trade minister in 2017 when the government was consulting on a Canada-China free trade agreement and one can still find a ministerial message from him on the departmental website about how “China is an important partner for Canada” and, notwithstanding growing trade volumes between the two countries, “there is room for us to do a lot more.” Now, in his role as industry minister, he has reversed himself: “What we want is certainly a decoupling: certainly from China, and I would say other regimes in the world which don’t share the same values.”

The one holdout may be the prime minister himself who, according to reports, was informed about the Chinese election interference several months ago and has seemingly done and said nothing about it. He also struggled through a weak and equivocal answer about China’s genocide of the Uyghurs at the ASEAN meetings on the eve of the G-20 summit.

The upshot: the Trudeau government still doesn’t fully know how to think about Canada’s relationship with China. It’s one step towards strategic decoupling and then one step back to empty engagement. We’re stuck in the self-made limbo of an uncertain strategy.

The problem, of course, is the world isn’t waiting for us to figure it out. As yesterday’s major developments show, the West’s relationship with China will be the defining feature of global security in the coming decades. It’s about time that Canada decided what it thinks about it.