Newcomers get a cold shoulder

Tung Chan

Special to the Sun

Monday, April 02, 2007

British Columbia is facing a labour shortage. Our unemployment numbers are at a record low and jobs are looking for people instead of the other way around.

If you think we have a labour crunch now, just think what will happen when the baby boom generation begins to retire. Within the next four years, there will be more people leaving the labour force in B.C. than entering it. By 2010, according to B.C. government projections, all net labour increase in B.C. will come from immigration. In 24 years, immigration will account for Canada’s total population growth.

What is driving this labour shortage is not only our economy but also our demographics. Canadians have not been making enough babies to sustain our population. Our current birth rate is 40 per cent below what is needed to maintain our population in the long run.

While our current government plans to bring in about 265,000 immigrants annually, we actually need to bring in between 350,000 to 450,000 per year to maintain our population, according to a study by one of Canada’s major banks.

Aging population and low birth rate is a worldwide phenomenon in the industrialized world. Canada will be competing with other countries for immigrants. Japan is looking at ways to bring in 650,000 guest workers per year to sustain its economy. Australia is providing homeowners’ grants to newcomers and is running full-page ads in newspapers in Hong Kong touting Australia’s friendliness towards Asian immigrants.

And what have we been doing to make the life of an immigrant easier? In 1990, a reporter from the South China Morning Post, writing on the plight of the economic immigrants to B.C., likened Canada to a host who invited people to a dance party. When the guests arrived, not only couldn’t they find any partner who knew their dance steps, they found the host had not even put on any music or any chairs. Not much has changed in the intervening years.

In B.C., newcomers have to wait for up to eight months to get basic English language training. Budgets for ESL home liaison officers for schools are constantly under threat. Credentials for foreign trained workers are routinely being denied. Although 48 per cent of Canada’s business immigrants came to B.C. in the past 10 years, there does not appear to be any coherent government or private sector program in place to assist business immigrants to connect with the local business community.

Moreover, only 47 per cent of federal transfers for immigrant settlement is actually spent on immigrant settlement specific programs. The balance goes into general revenue. As a province and as a country, now is the time for us to focus on how to help immigrants to integrate faster into our society socially, culturally and economically.

At present, there are no national guiding principles on what settlement services should be provided to newcomers. There are discrepancies on the level of funded English language training programs between provinces.

There are no coherent strategic plans in place to help new immigrant children and youth to integrate, even though children account for at least 25 per cent of newcomers. There is no apparent co-ordination between the federal government, which controls the level and categories of immigrants, and the provincial governments, which are responsible for the delivery of immigrant settlement services. We don’t, as a country, have a clue on how to construct a set of effective pathways for newcomers to acquire their Canadian identity and achieve social cohesion.

Newcomers are not unlike newborn babies, they need to learn our language and our way of doing things before they can function fully as Canadians. As a society, we accept the need to provide schooling, venues for socialization and vocational training to our children. But we seem to think that newcomers can do most of that on their own. There exists a view that any effort and money spent on immigrant settlement is a waste of resources.

This view is as incorrect as thinking that spending effort and money on our youth and children is a waste of resources because money could be better spent on adults and seniors. The fact is, there needs to be a continuum of services available for all people at all ages and at all points in life as they strive to become Canadians and live as Canadians.

To better prepare us for the unavoidable economic and cultural predicament brought on by the demographic forces working within and outside our national boundaries, it is not enough to just tweak programs and policies at the bureaucratic level. What we need is political leadership at the highest levels.

What we need now is a first ministers’ summit on immigrant settlement and integration. The prime minister and the premiers need to work out a set of national guiding principles for service standards and performance outcome for our newcomers. Such principles could be modelled after the Canada Health Act and enforced via the federal government’s fiscal transfer power.

We will all be further ahead if our political leaders can work collectively on this subject, sooner rather than later.

Tung Chan is chief executive officer of S.U.C.C.E.S.S. (United Chinese Community Enrichment Social Services) in Vancouver. The views expressed don’t necessarily represent those of S.U.C.C.E.S.S.

© The Vancouver Sun 2007

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