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Immigrants a burden, Canadians say in poll

Academic says view is a misconception

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MORE than half of Canadians think immigrants are a burden on the country's strapped social services and two-thirds believe the federal government should give priority to educated or highly skilled foreigners when considering who to let into the country.

Results of a worldwide poll by Ipsos released this week show 56 per cent of Canadians think immigration has put too much pressure on public services in Canada compared to 17 per cent who disagreed with the statement (22 per cent were neutral and four per cent said they did not know).

However, it is a misconception that immigrants are costly, Jeffrey Reitz, an expert in immigration and pluralism at the University of Toronto, told Postmedia News.

"Immigrants are actually helping us pay for these things, not the other way around," he said, citing research showing immigrants tend to use social services less than Canadian-born citizens and actually make positive fiscal contributions to the country.

The survey also shows that 62 per cent of Canadian respondents think priority should be given to immigrants with higher levels of education who can fill gaps in certain professions. In fact, Canadians ranked first among all countries on the question, followed by Australia and Great Britain.

Canada's immigration system favours skilled individuals, so support for this type of policy is not surprising, Reitz said.

"We're the inventors of the points system," he said, referring to the way in which would-be immigrants are selected based on education and other factors.

"Generally speaking, Canadians are more likely to think of immigrants in economic terms rather than cultural terms," said Steven Weldon, a professor in comparative immigration policy at Simon Fraser University in B.C.

Given Canada's relatively good economic record -- which tends to influence attitudes toward immigration in the short term -- it's no surprise Canadians have a more positive view of immigration than in other countries, Weldon said.

But immigrants should not be seen purely as economic units, said Victor Wong, director of the Chinese Canadian National Council.

"The person who's highly skilled and highly educated is also highly mobile," he said, pointing out the catch.

It is a good thing that Canada attracts skilled immigrants, he added, but these professionals cannot always find work in their fields because of their foreign credentials. They might be more inclined to move somewhere else, Wong said.

Wong added the strong sense of independence among immigrants, as well as the support from extended family, could explain why immigrants make less use of social services.

"There is this thing of self-reliance," he said. "The first generation immigrant tends to be very independent . . . They're very reluctant to be a burden."

The survey, which interviewed 17,601 respondents in 23 countries, shows Canadians have a relatively upbeat attitude toward immigration in general, compared to other countries and to the global average. Almost 40 per cent of Canadian respondents said they believed immigration has had a positive impact on the country. Another 35 per cent said they believed immigration has had a negative impact.

The poll found that those Canadians with higher levels of education were more likely to believe the impact of immigration is positive -- 62 per cent versus the 39 per cent national average.

Only 21 per cent of respondents globally said they believe immigration has had a positive effect on their country. Another 45 per cent said they believe immigration had a negative impact. The remaining 29 per cent of respondents worldwide are on the fence.

Countries with the strongest negative opinions were led by Belgium (72 per cent), followed by South Africa (70 per cent), Russia (69 per cent), Great Britain (64 per cent) and Turkey (57 per cent).

According to figures from the 2006 census, nearly 20 per cent of Canadians are foreign-born. It is the highest proportion in 75 years.

The government expects between 240,000 and 265,000 permanent residents to settle in Canada in 2011.

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 6, 2011 A15

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