Here's the situation in a nutshell: In many parts of Canada, particularly in the western provinces, there's a high demand for workers, but they're in short supply. If the shortage continues, wage rates will jump and that could contribute to both inflation and poor growth.
Four factors have created the shortage of workers.
One: Areas of our economy, such as the resource sector, are experiencing massive growth.
Two: Our birth rate has slumped. By comparison, the U.S.'s fertility rate has remained steady for the past 20 years at 2.05 births per woman, 50 per cent higher than Japan's rate, 45 per cent higher than Europe's and 35 per cent higher than Canada's.
Three: The boomers, our big generation, are retiring. The first wave reaches 60 this year. Sherry Cooper, chief economist of the BMO Financial Group, says Canada faces the steepest increase in retirements among the G7 industrial nations because we had the sharpest spike in births after the Second World War.
Four: Stephen Harper's Conservatives, just like the Liberals before them, have refused to make the federal Immigration Department into the world-class socio-economic organization it should be.
Manitobans know the importance of immigration. Statistics Canada's recent quarterly population report showed the province's overall population grew by 0.25 per cent, a rate slightly higher than the national average of 0.23 per cent. The boost is largely due to international immigration which more than made up for the outflow of people to other provinces.
Manitoba's international immigration figures are healthy because of the Manitoba Provincial Nominee Immigration Program. Immigration is a federal responsibility, but the nominee program allows Manitoba to bring in the skilled workers it requires. In 2006, two of every three immigrants arriving in Manitoba came through the nominee program.
Manitoba's success contrasts sharply with the fumbling of the federal Immigration Department.
Because Ottawa can't make up its mind about filling vacancies on the Immigration and Refugee Board, the backlog of refugee claims is growing by almost 1,000 cases a month. It has now reached 8,000 cases. Each claim takes about 12.5 months to process. When the Liberals left office, the backlog had been effectively reduced to zero for the first time in a decade.
Another muck-up: Canada's private sponsorship program has a proud history; we were among the first to have such a program and, since it started in 1979 with Indochinese boat people in South Asia, 180,000 refugees have been sponsored. Now, the program is bogged down. There are long delays (up to two years), acceptance rates are poor and a massive backlog is growing.
Yet another problem: Harper, in the last election, promised to set up a federal agency to examine and recognize the work credentials of newcomers. Instead, Ottawa will create an office to direct immigrants to provincial bodies that assess their skills. The Conference Board of Canada estimates 350,000 immigrants have taken jobs below their qualifications, which costs the economy between $3 billion and $5 billion a year.
In addition to all these problems, many immigrants can't get proper housing (a Manitoba family with 10 children was housed in an apartment with two bedrooms), newcomers suffering from traumatic incidents in their old countries have trouble getting treatment, skills training is in short supply.
The real issue, however, is that Ottawa does not provide any leadership on immigration. Politicians love to go to multicultural dances. But when have you ever heard one talk about the critical questions: Just how big a population do we want to have? What kinds of people should we encourage to come to Canada?
Naomi Alboim, of Queen's University's School of Policy Studies, says we should concentrate less on the debate about Canada's old identity and shift our discussion to what we'd like to see in an emerging identity.
The identity some Canadians want may not fit with our old notions of multiculturalism. Six in 10 people in an Ipsos-Reid poll for CanWest News Service and Global Television said minority groups should be encouraged to change their cultural ways and be like the rest of Canadians.
Another new study, Career Advancement in Corporate Canada (said to be the largest of its kind), says 47 per cent of visible minority managers and professionals reported feeling they were held to a higher standard of performance than their peers within their organization.
No matter how you feel about immigration, perhaps we can agree on one thing: The subject is critical and it's time to give it the bureaucratic and political attention it deserves.
Tom Ford is managing editor of
The Issues Network
The Issues Network.