Political Leadership

National Political Leadership is needed on immigration settlement and integration.

Tung Chan – March 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.  By 2031, one in four Canadians will be 65 years and older.

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% 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 world wide 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 their economy.  Australia is providing home owners’ grants to new comers 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, when writing on the plight of the economic immigrants to B.C., likens Canada to a host who invited people to a dance party.  When the guests arrived, not only they couldn’t find any dance partner who knew their dance steps, they found the host had not even put on any music or put out any chairs. 

Not much has changed in the intervening years.

In B.C., new comers 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% of Canada’s business immigrants come to B.C. in the past ten 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% of federal transfer money for immigrant settlement is actually spent on immigrant settlement specific programs.  The balance is put 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 new comers.  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% of new comers.  There is no apparent co-ordination between the Federal Government who controls the level and categories of immigrants with the Provincial Governments who 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 new comers to acquire their Canadian identity and achieve social cohesion.

New comers are not unlike new born babies, they need to learn our language, our way of doing things and our environment 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 as a society we seem to think that new comers 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 that could be better used on established Canadians.  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.  It is my belief that 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.

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

What we need now is a first Ministers’ summit on immigrant settlement and integration.  The Prime Minister and the Provincial Premiers need to work out a set of national guiding principles for service standards and performance outcome for our new comers.  Such principles could be modeled after our national 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.

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