Friday, June 17, 2005

Canada and Immigration

Canada always seemed like a successful twentieth century nation. It was productive, recognized as a peacemaker and a significantly different kind of country from the US. It was also a place for innovation – a vibrant, energizing and practical country. In addition to wonderful vistas, Canada seemed to have the trick of being a multicultural melting pot where ideas became possibilities and racial tensions, though occasional, were rare.

The twenty first century finds Canada in a very different place. Economically, we are struggling to compete in a world where the rules have changed and we are losing ground to competitors, including China and India. We are losing the productivity battle, having fallen from 2nd to 13th in the OECD productivity league. Despite the fact that Canada is strong in science and technology, we lead the world only in a few areas and our innovation system is vulnerable. While we remain strong in natural resources - especially oil, coal, water, agricultural land and fibre - we are slow to compete in a growingly knowledge based, value added economy.

We are also losing our place in the world. Our peacekeeping role, once the pride of the United Nations, has shrunk. The top ten peacekeeping nations in terms of troop contributions to UN missions are Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Ghana, India, Ethiopia, South Africa, Uruguay, Jordan and Kenya. Canada ranks thirty-third. Our government’s response to the 2004 tsunami was slow and marginal. We have a low level of influence over key players in the systems of global trade, as continuing trade disputes with the EU, Japan and the US show. Canada is a respected, but largely third division player in the global game of politics and economics.

Socially we are already struggling. Our basic demographics are such that, by 2020, all economic growth in Canada will come from immigration: we will be dependent on more productive, creative and entrepreneurial immigrants to sustain our standard of living. This has already beginning to happen in several major cities – Toronto, Vancouver, Abbotsford, Calgary, Edmonton and Montreal, for example - and Canada seems to have developed a reputation for being able to handle multicultural society, though occasional racial incidents do occur. Maintaining this reputation will be a difficult challenge.

There is a history of cultural communities - shaped by shared histories, origins and language - to form unique locales within fast growing cities, providing the "identify base and home" for different ethnic groups. Richmond BC is home to "little Asia" and Millwoods is Edmonton's "little India". While these communities are welcoming, they have their own rhythms and ways of working.

When we quadruple immigration and begin to receive more refugees fleeing their home countries for environmental reasons (climate change, natural disasters and water shortages will lead to more migration), health reasons (food supply, access to health care) or as a result of poverty, conflict and ethnic tensions these cultural zones will grow. They will have their own businesses, newspapers, identities and rights of practice. They will begin to demand more cultural rights - e.g. the right to exercise Shiria law, already the subject of debate and decision in the Quebec legislature. In particular, religious rights and language rights will become a source of conflict and tension.

This will lead to immigration becoming a major political issue within the next decade, as it already is in Holland, Britain and Australia. At the heart of the immigration issue will be two things. First, the growing economic power of recent immigrants. Second, the integration of immigrants into the culture of their "new" home nation.

In Canada by 2020 the economic wealth of immigrants will contrast sharply with the wealth of many native born Canadians, depending on the level of their post secondary education. In Alberta, for example, where the number of high school students flowing through to College or University is low, more immigrants will take high paying jobs in Universities and Colleges, health care and "knowledge industries" and will have a significant role in the shaping of company and organizational strategy. As more "manufacturing" and "service" jobs move offshore - attracted by low cost economies - it will be "expert knowledge and skills" which will secure high income. Given the volume of engineers, doctors and other specialists being produced in China, India, Pakistan, Philippines, Brazil (China already produces more electrical engineers than the US and India produces 260,000 engineers each year) we can expect significant immigration from these countries. Well-educated Canadians will do well, but the entrepreneurial spirit and productivity of many immigrants will be high, making them more attractive employees.

With only two people in the workforce to support each retired person (down from four in the 1990’s) by 2020, taxation, health care and support for seniors will also be major political issues. Immigrants will begin to question the level of taxation they are required to pay so as to sustain an economy which they did not shape. They will look for alternatives to “more of the same” for health care and other public services, especially since more of them will have experiences (positive and negative) of these alternatives. They will challenge all levels of Government to think differently and it will happen first in those metropolitan areas where foreign-born citizens are the fastest growing portion of the population.

The situation in the US is very different. The base population of the US will stabilise at around 300m by 2050, according to the US Census Bureau. Immigration, which has been growing rapidly since the reforms in the mid 1960’s, will take the population to between 400 and 500m. Mexico will be a major provider of these new citizens, and many of the new immigrants will not speak English at all (some 5.6m Americans are unable to do so in 2000, this will grow to around 50m by 2050). Many new immigrants are unskilled or low skilled, making only a marginal contribution to the economy - which would also be the case in Canada if we simply doubled immigration without focusing on skills and competencies needed for economic growth[i]. The US immigration problem will be explosive, in Canada it will be a significant source of political tension.

The faith base of many communities will shift. The spread of Islam and the growth of fundamentalist religions of all shades will have an impact on the way in which we lead our lives. Already, France and Britain have had to face up to challenges to dress codes in schools, to freedoms rightly earned by women and to religious traditions. We have already seen this in Canada. We no longer publicly celebrate Christmas - we refer to the period December 24th - 26th as "the holidays" so as not to offend non-Christians. Many organizations have banned the display of Christmas trees for this same reasons and schools in several jurisdictions can no longer perform nativity plays.

Chinese is now officially the third language of Canada (Census 2001). There are a growing number of television and print media in the language of minorities. These will become very influential in shaping attitudes and values of future generations. Speaking Chinese may become as important as speaking French, especially since China will be the worlds leading trading nation by 2020.

None of this is “bad”. Its just significantly different. We need to do more to help our communities understand different cultures, different religions and the way in which culture and religion shapes values, belief and action. We need to do more to encourage dialogue between different groups focused on key policy questions that will shape our future – health care, the economy, and governance of our institutions. We need to focus our immigration on skills and competencies Canada needs to secure its rightful place for the future. Finally, we all need to recognize that Yogi Berra was right: “the future isn’t what it used to be”. We are in the midst of a major challenge to Canada’s place in the world and we need to work across all boundaries in Canada for us to be succeed. It won’t be easy.

[i] Source: Economic Council of Canada New Faces in the Crowd: The Economic and Social Impacts of Immigration, (Ottawa: Supply and Services Canada, 1991).

No comments: