Canada Steps up Global Competition for ‘Brains’—At What Cost?

The global competition for talent—the ‘battle for the brains’—is fierce, and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney knows that Canada can no longer assume that it is uniquely attractive as a destination for high-skilled migrants. Along with many other states, we must now entice these migrants to join us, rather than assume they desire to do so. 

The global competition for talent—the ‘battle for the brains’—is fierce, and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney knows that Canada can no longer assume that it is uniquely attractive as a destination for high-skilled migrants. Along with many other states, we must now entice these migrants to join us, rather than assume they desire to do so.  This is the context in which Minister Kenney has just announced the expansion of the Canadian Experience Class (CEC). The CEC’s explicit objective is to give permanent resident status to otherwise-temporary immigrants who fulfill one of two criteria: they are foreign students who have completed studies at one of Canada’s universities, or they are temporary migrants who have laboured successfully in high-skilled professions for a specified length of time.

These changes are bound to be popular with qualifying migrants. They make admission into permanent residency easier, and will expand the number of individuals who can participate in the program. They should also be popular with the Canadian public, since the logic of admitting migrants who have already proven their ability to integrate into Canadian society, via success in the labour market or in educational institutions, is sound.

Moreover, these moves are likely to make Canadian educational institutions more attractive to foreign students. The ability to transition to Canadian citizenship following completion of a degree may entice foreign students into paying the very high tuition fees imposed on them by most Canadian universities (in comparison to the relatively lower fees paid by Canadian students). In an environment in which Canadian universities are struggling to make ends meet, and in which they are keen to attract foreign students, these moves are attractive ones.

Yet it is the larger immigration strategy—rather than the immediate local changes—that requires our critical attention.  Enlarging the pool of high-skilled migrants who can access permanent residence and then citizenship is a strategy being pursued in tandem with the expansion of temporary labour migration programs.  According to Citizenship and Immigration Canada’s 2010 Facts and Figures, the total number of temporary foreign workers in Canada in 2010 was over 400,000, up from just over 170,000 in 2000.  An increasing proportion of these migrants are low-skilled ones who are either barred from accessing Canadian citizenship entirely, or for whom the procedures for doing so are hidden, cumbersome and seemingly arbitrary.

The predictable long-term result is two-fold. First is the creation of two tiers of migrants: those who are desirable and therefore eligible to join ‘us’, and those who are undesirable and therefore ineligible to do so. A second and especially troublesome result is the slow development of a perception among Canadians that immigrants in general are undesirable because they are mostly low-skilled and poorly integrated.  Already we have seen the adoption by prominent public intellectuals of the view that Canadians have been deluded by the government into believing that immigration is good always for us. (Many such commentators are associated with the anti-immigrant Centre for Immigration Policy Reform, including my colleague Gilles Paquet, whose new book Moderato Cantabile questions several of the “toxic myths in good currency about immigration” in Canada.) We should worry that public perception will follow suit.

That we should worry about the public perception of immigrants in the face of increasingly large numbers of low-skilled migrants is something we can learn from a quick glance across the border, where Hispanic citizens and lawful residents face ongoing and often vicious discrimination as a result of the widespread perception that they are net takers rather than contributors to the nation’s economic system. Canada’s immigration success stems in large part from the belief among Canadians that immigrants are essential contributors to the economy; this belief itself stems from immigrants’ relative success at integrating into Canadian society more generally. The admission of temporary migrants, however—who are barred or discouraged from joining us permanently, and who therefore do not integrate well or at all—risks creating large pools of low-skilled migrants surviving at the margins of Canadian society. Their presence may eventually unravel the existing Canadian consensus on the value, both economic and social, of immigration. Even as Minister Kenney garners favourable attention with news of the expanding CEC, we should not take our focus away from the shifts in our national immigration strategy toward admitting temporary labour migrants—and the dangers that doing so presents.

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