Like The Hub?
Join our community.
Join

Adam Legge and Irfhan Rawji: Our immigration strategy is failing to deliver on its most important promise

Commentary

Canada is a nation that has benefited tremendously from immigration. At its core, the promise of immigration is this: that new Canadians can come here from around the world, contribute to our economy and society, and build a great life for themselves, and that when they do, we will all collectively be better off for it.

The problem is, we have not been delivering on that promise.

In recent years, Canada’s immigration system has strayed, and while there are still many positives, it hasn’t been delivering as well for established Canadians and newcomers alike. Perhaps most importantly—and most frankly—is that it’s not making everyone better off, and Canadians are getting poorer.

Right now, Canada’s economy has stagnated. In fact, Canadians are no better off today than they were in 2014. And, with future productivity expectations in the gutter, our economy will not grow at the pace required to deliver opportunities for a growing population. All this has created frustration among Canadians, both long-established and new ones. Less than one-third of Canadians believe that our current approach to immigration is effective, and one-third of immigrants are unsure of their decision to move to Canada.

That’s a bad sign for Canada’s future. Future prosperity requires that the Canadian economy generates more value, not just because there are more of us, but because each one of us is better off. To get there, we need an enhanced approach and a renewed focus on the actual purpose of economic immigration: to generate prosperity for all. 

There are two main ways we need to do this:

  • Attracting and selecting the best candidates for economic immigration
  • Improving outcomes for newcomers themselves

On the selection of the best economic candidates, the statistics around this may surprise many Canadians. Today, about half of the people admitted into Canada in the economic category were not, in fact, selected for their economic contributions. They are the spouses and dependents of a primary economic immigrant. For every 10 newcomers to Canada, about three are personally selected for their economic contribution. While many of these additional people have great contributions to make to our economy as well, when we’re counting five-year-olds as economic immigrants, it’s no wonder we’re not seeing the level of economic boost we might expect.

Also, there are big gaps in how Canada decides which economic immigrants to select. Take as an example a person with a master’s degree in—because we need to pick something—Latin, versus a person with a certification as a heavy-duty mechanic.

All else held equal, the person with the master’s would receive more points than the mechanic, due simply to years of education, despite the fact that the mechanic has vastly higher average earning potential in Canada today. And, with full respect to both professions, Canada also needs far more heavy mechanics right now than we do TAs in Latin.

A clear needle-moving fix is to reform the points system used to better select economic immigrants, prioritizing those with higher earning potential over other measures. We should also make this system dynamic and update it frequently to account for changes in what skills our economy needs in real time.

On the second front, improving newcomer experience and outcomes, the fixes are clear but that doesn’t make them easy. The process needs to be streamlined and simplified. We need to connect newcomers to supports so they can find a home and a job as quickly as possible. More than all else, we need to make it much easier for newcomers to use their skills in the Canadian labour market. We must view it as economically and morally unacceptable to have people delivering Skip the Dishes who are trained as—and would prefer to be working as—physicians and engineers.

Finally, as every business person knows, what gets measured gets done. For our immigration system, we need to enhance it to deliver on its stated goal of making everyone better off. That requires tying our strategy to clear indicators of prosperity such as GDP growth per capita and directing our resources to best increase those metrics.  

There is a mandate for change. In a poll from Abacus, nearly 70 percent of Canadians feel the current immigration targets are too high. We owe it to all Canadians, from those who have been here the longest to the newest, to deliver on the promise of immigration and make everyone better off from it.

Patrick Luciani: Utopian ideas always sound nice. But never underestimate the ugliness of human nature

Commentary

In the latest Hub book review, Patrick Luciani examines Free and Equal: A Manifesto for a Just Society (Knopf, 2023, 2024) by Daniel Chandler, which puts forth how the ideas of John Rawls can be implemented in our times for progressive political ends.

After the Second World War, countries in Northern Europe, the U.K., Canada, and the U.S. moved closer to what we know as democratic welfare states. Not all at the same pace, but there was a general belief that governments had an obligation to help the poor with programs that supported education and health, along with pensions when they retired. That momentum grew stronger over the years. 

With the spread of more programs, resistance came from those forced to pay for these programs with higher taxes, and they had a point. Classical political thinkers John Locke and American James Madison provided some justification for a small but limited government to protect property rights. Even Karl Marx provided a philosophical top-down justification for communism and the control of all capital and resources. But there wasn’t a philosophy justifying or underpinning a welfare state. 

In a transformative moment in 1971, Harvard philosopher John Rawls published A Theory of Justice, a work that would revolutionize political philosophy. Rawls’ argument was a profound endeavour to reconcile the seemingly conflicting ideals of freedom and equality in a pluralistic society, a departure from the conventional political theories. Rawls’ book would cement his status as the most significant political theorist of the past century. Five decades after its publication, it still dominates contemporary political thought and debate. 

Daniel Chandler’s book Free and Equal explains how Rawls’s thinking can still create “a more humane, equal, and sustainable society for our times” and a realistic utopia if only we had the courage to follow his lead. 

Rawls defended a greater role for the state through a thought experiment following the tradition of Thomas Hobbes and Jean Jacque Rousseau’s social contract theories. He proposed we start from an original position where “we” as a society gather to design a system of government behind what he called a “veil of ignorance.” Behind this veil, we have no memory of our race, religion, family history, status in society, or whether we are rich or poor. We don’t even know our genders, ambitions, or intellectual capacities. Our amnesia is complete behind this veil. 

Under these conditions, what kind of society would we choose to live in? Rawls concludes we would rationally select a system that guarantees the highest level of political rights to pursue our goals in a free society and, second, what Rawls called the “difference principle” that inequalities in society are allowed if they benefit everyone. This system assures a level of income distribution that would secure a good life for all, especially for the least advantaged. We would choose that system because it serves our self-interest. 

Rawls further justifies sharing wealth and income because much of life is a matter of chance; no one truly deserves their intellectual or creative talents because they are distributed by nature randomly. Even the talent for hard work is an accident of chance. It is only fair that the neurosurgeon, brilliant enough to get into medical school and earn a million dollars a year, should share some of that income with the janitor earning $30,000 who never finished high school. Income should be shared so we all have the best chances to reach our human potential, starting with access to good schools and an income to round out the rough edges of life. 

Rawls isn’t an easy read. His arduous style requires a hard-backed chair to keep the reader’s attention. (Neither was he an easy listen, a fact I learned personally when attending some of his lectures in my own university days.) Chandler humanizes Rawls’ work by clearly explaining his ideas to the average reader while defending a democratic form of liberalism against what he believes is a dominant neoliberalism that puts markets ahead of compassion. Chandler spends most of his book arguing for progressive government programs—caused by the widening gap between rich and poor—including higher minimum wages, stronger unions, and a guaranteed annual income while abolishing all private education and riding elections of private money. 

Professor Rawls’s A Theory of Justice has agitated critics on both sides of the political spectrum over the 50 years since its publication. The extreme Left has attacked Rawls for defending private ownership even though society would be left poorer but better off under a system of greater equality. On the Right, any form of taxation is unjust if wealth is earned legally without coercion, as Robert Nozick argues in Anarchy, State and Utopia in his response to Rawls’s defence of the welfare state. Moral philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt argues that eradicating inequality is a false goal when our attention should be on diminishing poverty—two very different things.

Chandler’s book is subtitled “A Manifesto for a Just Society” in the spirit of Marx’s phrase “From each according to his ability, to each according to need.” If you raise the cost of those with ability and lower the cost of those with need, don’t be surprised if you get less of the first and more of the second.  

Aside from underplaying the damage caused by identity politics and alienating many of the poor Rawls wants to help, Chandler’s greatest weakness is his underestimation of human nature. It may be true that those who enjoy the benefits of their gifts are the lucky ones, but many find it difficult to believe that all good fortune is undeserved or that effort plays no part in life’s success. Pushing that conclusion too hard will always get a strong reaction when most people see that determination and free will dominate how we lead our lives and the following benefits or costs. Diminishing earned accomplishments won’t bring us closer to a Rawlsian world searching for a “realistic utopia.” It will end up giving us the opposite.