Canada is a leader in welcoming refugees. Claims that the government holds an altruistic stance on immigration have become part of the collective national consciousness. What is especially surprising is the belief, regardless of political affiliation, that Canadian immigration is a form of charity to newcomers that allows them to start a new life. Whether it be praise for Trudeau’s acceptance of Syrian migrants or criticism of his overly generous refugee acceptance at taxpayers’ expense, many Canadians perceive their country as generous with regards to immigration policy. Although this perceived altruism may appear as a fundamental international responsibility to some, or a misguided charitable policy that holds a high economic cost to others, the notion that immigration policy is not in Canada’s own self-interest is fundamentally wide off the mark. There may be a charitable portion to immigration by accepting refugees (both government funded and privately sponsored) fleeing danger and seeking asylum, but the majority of immigration remains principally economically motivated.
Put bluntly, the question is whether Canada’s policy is really based on welcoming those in need, or not. Does it not restrict admittance to only the best candidates to further its economic agenda, thanks to the points system (as well as other provincial programs aimed at filling employment and skill gaps), whilst natural barriers to illegal immigration do the rest? The underlying motive here is to demystify Canada’s role in “progressive immigration strategies”. The Canadian immigration strategy should more adequately be portrayed as a mix of charitable and economically viable policy rather than erroneously labelling it as one or the other.
A little bit of back story: what do the numbers say?
So, what do we mean by “immigrant”? The term immigrant refers to non-native citizens and non-citizens residing in Canada, excluding temporary foreign workers and those on work or student visas. There are three main classes of immigrants in Canada as defined by Citizenship, Immigration and Refugees Canada: Economic Class, Family Class, and Refugees.
Note: The 2016 and 2017 figures appear as targets since official numbers have not yet been released for the entire year (only available for the first few quarters).
Source: Immigration data and target data.
Two prominent economists studying migration, Abdurrahman Aydemir and George Borjas, point towards large influxes of “skilled” migration in Canada (mainly due to the points system that favours economic migrants) narrowing the wage inequality gap. They also claim that large influxes of “low-skilled” migrants in the US have had negative labour market impacts, including unemployment and reduced wages. Although their research dates back to 2006, the central policy conclusions remain true today. Canada has seen a steady increase in its admittance of economic class migrants that prioritise Canadian economic welfare over its compassionate international responsibilities towards vulnerable displaced individuals worldwide.
Canada the altruist: the good face of Canadian immigration
As many celebrated the return of the Trudeaumania of the late 1960s, the acceptance of additional thousands of Syrian refugees became one of the cornerstones of the Liberal platform. Between the renaming of Citizenship and Immigration Canada to Citizenship, Immigration and Refugees Canada and the trending #welcomeRefugees Twitter tag, it seemed to usher in a new era of increased appreciation for Canada’s international responsibility. This grand humanitarian gesture towards those in need reaffirmed Canada’s image as a welcoming country, in stark contrast to the rising isolationist, populist and nationalist waves across many western nations.
Although far behind Germany, Canada ranks among the very top regarding inflows of asylum seekers per capita in the world according to OECD estimates. Fulfilling, even surpassing, its international responsibility as per the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Canada has experienced significant growth in its acceptance of permanent residents or immigration numbers, including family reunification through family member sponsoring programs. This increase in diversity puts Canada on the path to nearly one in two residents being either an immigrant or second-generation immigrant (person with at least one parent being an immigrant) by 2036. Although this bright and altruistic depiction of Canadian immigration policy may be inspiring to many, Canadians should remember that the majority of immigration remains economically motivated as opposed to the often-portrayed humanitarian idealism. Refugees and compassionate/humanitarian immigrants remain a small fraction of Canadian immigrants (14.5% per the 2017 immigration target data).
Case against the moral high-horse: nuancing Canada’s altruistic stance
Although it can be flattering to see descriptions of Canada as a compassionate country that is accommodating of migrants of all kinds, one does not need to look far before conceding that such claims need to be nuanced. Despite having become more accommodating over time, the refusal of Jewish migrants and their return to Europe in the wake of the Second World War and rigid ethnic quotas for immigrants (particularly Chinese immigrants before the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1947 since it was inconsistent with the United Nations Charter of Human Rights) still mar Canada’s historical immigration record.
Canadian immigration, which remains mainly self-interested and economically minded largely depends on the points system to filter out “less-skilled” migrants (although this could potentially include “less-skilled” family members of the primary applicant). These economic migrants serve as important drivers of Canadian entrepreneurship and long-term growth, and it is erroneous to dismiss this as Canadian compassion, selflessness or altruism. Economic migrants offset the costs of other more compassionate forms of immigration such as family reunification or refugees. There also exist natural barriers that prevent these “less-skilled” migrants from crossing into Canada illegally. It is easy to claim that Canada accepts many immigrants on compassionate grounds when it doesn’t have to worry about undocumented migrant waves that are largely “low-skilled” and a potential drain on public resources (at least temporarily) and has economic migrants through the points system that offset costs.
Appreciating Canada’s nuanced stance on immigration: balancing humanitarianism and economic benefit
There exist significant benefits to immigration. These range from higher fertility rate in second-generation immigrants, to maintaining balanced demographics (landed immigrants or first-generation immigrants tend to be older and do not have this rejuvenating effect), to filling employment gaps and reducing inequality, to increasing the average entrepreneurial spirit and increased average education levels. Therefore, immigration can be a boon for Canadian growth. However, we are cherry picking migrants by largely focusing on economic class migrants. And although Canadians have often welcomed asylum seekers and others in need, choosing the cream of the crop when it comes to economic migrants is primarily motivated by economics and demographics, not altruism.
On a global scale, Canada remains among the highest receivers of refugees per capita, with Germany a mile ahead of the pack. Canadians have, to a certain extent, earned the right to claim some moral high ground when it comes to immigration issues. Recent uptakes of family and refugee class permanent residents indicate a more charitable stance to immigration during the Trudeau government’s tenure. But let us all remember that immigration remains a fundamentally economic issue. The recent reductions in targets for refugees (from 55,800 in 2016 to 40,000 in 2017) and the increase in economic immigrants (from 160,600 to 172,500) are a testimony to that.
Canadians from across the political spectrum appear to believe their country is generous in accepting refugees. Canada may be welcoming to refugees and those in need, but claiming its immigration policy is purely selfless is willful ignorance from the “pro-immigration” camp and an easy target for advocates of reduced immigration. There is nothing inherently wrong with a charitable or a self-benefiting (focused on more productive economic migrants) immigration policy, but let it be clear: Canadian immigration policy, as it currently stands, is mainly driven by economic self-interest. We can debate the merits of a philantropic and charitable versus a self-benefiting immigration policy, but let us be clear: Canadian immigration policy, as it currently stands, is mainly driven by economic self-interest.
Samuel MacIsaac is a PhD student at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University, where he specializes in International Economic Policy. He holds a Masters in Economics from the University of Montreal. His research interests include international migration, international finance and trade, and international relations. He has written on issues relating to negative interest rates, the impact of trade on education outcomes and forecasts of immigration within Canada.