Debating the numbers

Ottawa acts to dampen public concern over immigration

Anthony Wilson-Smith November 7 1994

Debating the numbers

Ottawa acts to dampen public concern over immigration

Anthony Wilson-Smith November 7 1994

Debating the numbers


Ottawa acts to dampen public concern over immigration


In an occupation in which who you know can matter as much as what you think, the walls of Immigration and Citizenship Minister Sergio Marchi’s fifth-floor Parliament Hill office provide eloquent testimony to his political prowess. Among others, there are photographs of Marchi alongside Jean Chrétien in the early 1980s, and with John Turner during his time as Liberal leader in the last half of the decade.

They are reminders that the 38-year-old Marchi, despite being the youngest member of now-Prime Minister Chrétien’s cabinet, is a 10-year veteran of the House of Commons who is recognized by his peers as being one of the Liberal party’s most resilient political animals. “Sergio,” says a cabinet colleague with careful irony, “is one of those people who can listen to two completely contrasting opinions, and then make both sides feel he agrees completely with them.”

That is no small feat in a portfolio that now, more than ever, arouses powerful and conflicting emotions. Marchi, through much of his first year in office, appeared adroit at either meeting or glibly stepping around public concerns over topics ranging from the levels of annual immigration to Canada, to crime rates and use and abuse of the country’s social programs by immigrants. But recently he has faced a series of embarrassing revelations about the department and its policies.

Those included his admission last week that taxpayers this year will pay $700 million in welfare costs for immigrants whose families failed to meet sponsorship commitments on their behalf. At the same time, an internal finance department study suggested that present immigration policies are directly responsible for the fact that the labor force is growing more quickly than the country’s ability to create jobs. As well, there are the increasingly controversial operations of the Immigration and Refugee Board, which one high-profile, recently departed member described last week as “a complete and utter mess” (page 28). Still, Marchi claims to be unfazed. “In this job,”

he said in an interview with Maclean’s, “somebody is going to be mad at you all of the time.”

One way or another, the level of anger will increase this week when Marchi (who himself came to Canada from Argentina as a young child) releases what he describes as Canada’s first-ever comprehensive 10-year plan on immigration. “Immigration is a long-term issue that we have been approaching until now on a short-term basis,” he says. It is also an issue that arouses conflicting opinions among Marchi’s own caucus colleagues and some of his policy advisers. The flash points include Canada’s overall annual level of immigration— which, on a per capita basis, has been easily the highest in the world in the past decade—and the types of immigrants included in that total. Others include questions about policies that at times appear to either unduly benefit or restrict new Canadians. As Marchi put the final touches on his new policy last week, Maclean’s learned that the minister was likely to announce:








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• A reduction of the 1994 target of 250,000 immigrants to a 1995 total of between 190,000 and 215,000. That reduction, however, may be only on paper, since only about 212,000 immigrants are expected to arrive this year. Even in announcing a 10-year plan, Marchi was not expected to supply specific numbers for the annual intake of immigrants beyond next year.

• A reduction of the number of family-reunification immigrants—who now account for well over half the total—and a tightened definition of who can qualify. Informed speculation centred on possible new limits on who qualifies as family, and on not extending the right of sponsorship to those who were initially sponsored themselves. The family category, which now accounts for more than half of the total, will drop to about 44 per cent.

• “Vigorous” efforts to encourage provinces and professional associations to make it much easier for foreign-trained immigrants to practise in such fields as law, medicine, architecture and engineering.

• Changing the structure of the point system currently used to rate prospective immigrants in the “independent” category. Critics say there is now too much emphasis on specific job skills, and not enough on important attributes for adaptability such as fluency in French or English, and overall academic and job experience. To those criticisms, Marchi says, “I agree. We will make changes.” English or French fluency will be given much greater importance.

• “Aggressive” efforts to crack down on abuses of the sponsorship program that have led to the $700-million welfare shortfall.

Those steps will expose Marchi to fierce and conflicting criticism. The Reform party, for example, wants the annual immigration figure lowered to 150,000—a figure that, on a per capita basis, would still rank among the highest in the world. The United States, with a population roughly 10 times that of Canada, took in one million immigrants last year. “All of our concerns over immigration have come in the last 10 years, when the annual figure got above that total,” said Art Hanger, Reform’s immigration critic. “History shows that is the maximum we can


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accommodate without undue strain.” A series of recent opinion polls shows that most Canadians also want the figure sharply reduced. But there is also strong pressure from many ethnic groups and analysts to keep the present total. “It would be very, very disappointing if Marchi caved in to the opposition,” said Morton Weinfeld, a McGill University sociology professor who has advised the government on immigration issues. “Immigration policy not only reflects a nation’s values, but shapes them. What kind of a message are we sending out if we cut the numbers and suggest to immigrants that, in effect, we want them but not their parents?”

In fact, Marchi, while generally playing the role of the government’s leading cheerleader on the merits of immigration, has otherwise sent conflicting messages over how newcomers should be treated. At various times, he has endorsed or pondered—and then backed away from—schemes for prospective immigrants ranging from mandatory identity cards and lie detector tests to compulsory HIV testing and deportation of business-class immigrants who fail to keep the investment promises they make. His frequent vows to get tough on violent crimes committed by illegal immigrants have not, so far, been matched by equivalent action. On those issues and others, said Reform’s Hanger, “the minister likes to glory in making tough-sounding declarations, and then does either nothing or the complete opposite.”

In some ways, Marchi’s sometimes conflicting stances typify the uncertainty that exists among Canadians on so many aspects of the immigration debate. The economic and social issues involved in defining policy are complex, and the conclusions about the impact of immigration often differ sharply depending which part of the country is being studied. Not even the federal government’s own advisers appear able to agree on the philosophical starting point—the relationship that Canadians bom in the country and new arrivals have with each other.

Last summer, Marchi assigned 10 groups of immigration experts to produce recommendations on different aspects of policy. Their findings often bore little relation to one another. One document, for example, described Canada as “an open, dynamic and caring country” whose immigration program is based on the “fundamental principles of the country we are.” One of those principles, the document says, is that “Canadians continue to believe in the positive attributes of ethnic, racial and religious diversity.” But a document produced by another group said this: “One of the obstacles encountered by immigrants, especially those ... in visible minorities, is racism, manifested as prejudicial attitudes of individuals and as differential treatments by social institutions.” As a result, that document concluded, Canadians should be compelled to become more accepting of immigrants through such measures as mandatory employment-equity programs in business and anti-racism courses in schools.

But rather than such steps, some of the most fundamental problems and complaints facing Marchi’s department appear to be a result of bureaucratic slowness and unwillingness to


change, and Canada’s age-old difficulties of competing federal and provincial jurisdictions. One area that Marchi would most like to change, but that will cause him some of his greatest difficulties, is in the process described as “accreditation” of immigrants.

That amounts to the licensing of professionals in Canada who often have received extensive training in their fields abroad.

Right now, most of the licensing of professionals is done by either provinces or professional associations. That can mean, for example, that a foreign-trained doctor can be told by a provincial medical association that he or she must study medicine at a Canadian university for several years before being allowed to write standard examinations. In turn, there is often a waiting list at those universities. As a result,

Marchi said: “We have excellent doctors working as nurses, and nurses who can’t qualify to work at all, even as some areas of the country are screaming for medical help.”

Some other problems within Marchi’s own department could, critics complain, be cured easily enough if the will exists. Canada’s family-reunification sponsorship program is one such case. The only financial criterion for a potential sponsor is that he or she must have an annual income of more than the poverty level of $16,482.

Sponsors are not asked for the size of their assets, and are even accepted if they are receiving unemployment insurance. A sponsor is then asked to sign a pledge guaranteeing that the sponsored immigrant will not receive welfare or government-paid health services for the next five years. But immigrants who did not abide by that pledge—and sponsors who failed to meet their commitment to pay for the benefits they received—accounted for that $700-million welfare shortfall. To curtail that, critics suggest the immigration department create two new conditions for sponsors: force them to post a bond they would forfeit if those they sponsored did not keep their pledge; and measure the assets, rather than the income, of sponsors.

Another problem that Marchi settled earlier this year involved restrictions placed on refugees after their arrival. A study conducted in British Columbia between 1989 and 1991 showed that foreign-bom people represented four per cent of those who collected welfare payments, while foreign-born people overall make up 22 per cent of the province’s population. Of that four per cent, almost all were refugees under appeal who, until Marchi had the law changed in January, were forbidden from working until their cases were resolved.

There are other strains and costs, such as those associated with language training. The federal government initially put aside $100 million under the Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada program last year, but later cut $20 million from that to transfer to other programs. That cut came despite staggering increases in the number of newcomers who need language training. Of the 240,000 immigrants who came to Canada last year, 109,000—44 per cent—could speak neither English nor French. In British Columbia, for example, the number of children enrolled in English as a Second Language (ESL) courses has increased several hundredfold in some areas. In Richmond, the number of students needing ESL training increased from 175 in 1985 to 8,800 last year. In the Greater Vancouver area, 48 per cent of elementary and secondary school students now need ESL assistance. That has caused other difficulties. One of the 10 working groups that Marchi appointed concluded last summer that “tensions have surfaced in schools in metropolitan centres as the language difficulties of some immigrant children affect the learning progress in the regular classroom.”

Those factors lead some, such as Reform’s Hanger, to say that the government should place a much higher priority on the ability to speak English or French among prospective immigrants. Others suggest that with the costs of ESL programs skyrocketing, immigrants should be obliged to carry a significant burden of the cost. One solution suggested by economist Don DeVoretz of Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., would be to allow business-class immigrants to post a bond equal to the amount they would otherwise be obliged to invest in a business. The bond would be held by a provincial government interest-free for five years, after which the principal would be returned to

the investor. The interest would be used to help finance ESL programs.

Some of the confusion comes from the difficulty in evaluating the direct impact of immigrants. On a national level, most studies show that the effect of immigration is neutral on a large economy such as Canada’s, and that there is no evidence to link an increased population with increased wealth. One study by DeVoretz, to be published this month, contains findings that are likely to lend ammunition both I to advocates of high immigration z rates and to those who argue I against the need for such measures I as employment-equity programs to i help immigrants integrate.

I That study, prepared for Toronto’s I C. D. Howe Institute, concludes that





Number of immigrants admitted to Canada 1981-1993





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overall, immigrants earn less than native-born Canadians for their first 10 to 12 years in Canada—but then go on to earn more during the course of their lives. DeVoretz, who is often consulted by the federal government on immigration issues, used recent census data to compare income and asset levels of immigrants and native-born Canadians. His findings suggest that immigrants—after an initial adjustment period of settling into a new environment, language and social structure—do not face the “systemic racism” that some of Marchi’s advisers allege they encounter. As well, by the age of 55, immigrants usually have a net worth that is more and tend to save more money than native-born Canadians. At the end of their lives, typically they can leave a bequest to their children that is 2'A times the average of other Canadians.

But those are long-term benefits, and DeVoretz and other economists concede that short-term results often produce different and less encouraging findings. Almost all studies indicate that the only guarantee of immigrants having a positive effect on the economy is if the number of refugees and family reunification cases is below 50 per cent of the total. That has not been the case for a decade. And because of the differences in the kinds of immigrants that Canada accepts, immigration can have strong effects on the economy and society of different regions.

In Toronto, for example,

“there is no question that high immigration has created negative and undue strains in recent years,” said DeVoretz. But, he added: “In British Columbia, there is equally no question that immigration has had a positive effect on the economy.” That is because British Columbia’s immi„ grants generally have | more money: about one in f four immigrants to British Columbia was a business entrepreneur or investor, t By contrast, according to | federal government figures, about one in 14 of Toronto’s immigrants fits into those categories. More than half of Toronto’s 71,000 immigrants in 1993 were refugees or part of the family-reunification program, whose incomes and professional qualifications are usually substantially less.

Those are some of the key economic issues. On other factors, such as the long-term effects of changing immigration patterns on Canadian society, the result is even more difficult to measure, and the debate much more emotional. Members of Parliament from urban areas—where almost all immigrants settle—say that immigration questions usually rank either first or second in the topics of discussions with constituents. Those concerns range from the benign—such as frustration with red tape in processing immigration claims—to angry assertions that the government is not acting briskly enough to deport illegal immigrants. In general, said Marchi’s caucus colleague, Toronto-area MP Thomas Wappel, people believe there is “a failure to enforce certain regulations and

certain responsibilities, and that undermines people’s confidence in the system.”

Another area of concern is federal and provincial laws that are enacted separately from each other but which, taken together, can have a profound impact on many people. For example, Ontario’s employment-equity law obliges companies to make efforts to ensure that their staff composition reflects, as closely as possible, the composition of the province’s population. But it is only within the past 10 years that immigration levels have reached an annual average of one per cent of the overall population—which has resulted in the most widespread changes ever in the composition of the Canadian population.

So far, there has been little collaboration between the two governments—or anyone else— to measure the combined effects on the workplace of employment equity and large-scale immigration. Despite that, Liberal sources told Maclean’s last week that the federal government plans later this year to introduce employment-equity legislation at the federal level.

That legislation will affect, according to the party’s Red Book of election promises, the federal public service, agencies and commissions, and give the Canadian Human Rights Commission the power to investigate employmentequity cases.

That legislation will be introduced by Treasury Board President Art Eggleton and Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Marcel Massé. For his part, Marchi says: “I don’t think it is for our department to get into the employment-equity business. I think it is for our department to do a couple of things, such as a lot more co-ordination with the provinces.” He also wants to win Canadians over to his own unshakable belief that immigrants form “a collective gift to ourselves for the future.” For now, most Canadians still appear to agree; the real debate will centre on whether Marchi has chosen the proper size and composition of that gift.

With LUKE FISHER in Ottawa

People believe there is ‘a failure to enforce regulations and responsibilities’