Is Canada’s Immigration Policy “Commoditizing” Immigrants?
Thousands of people line the Canada Day Parade route in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada on July 1, 2016. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)
Canada, like other countries who depend largely on immigration, has lately been caught up in a narrative of bad versus good immigration. With the arrival of Syrian refugees in 2016, asylum-seekers from across the Canada-USA border in 2017, and an increase in immigration levels announced by the Government in 2019-2020, suddenly, immigration seems to have forced Canadians into taking sides.
The bad immigration narrative, largely spurred by right-wing populist groups such as the Quebec-based La Muete and Coalition Avenir Québec, has fed largely off these instances. However, most of their anti-immigrant narrative has demonstrated limited relevance to ground realities. Syrian refugees by and large have managed to integrate peacefully within Canada, though their economic success has admittedly varied. Recent surveys have also shown a rising acceptance of immigration by Canadians, particularly post-COVID-19. This is perhaps due to the importance of the role of migrant workers in Canada’s health and food systems that was highlighted as a result of the pandemic.
The good immigration narrative on the other hand, has consistently followed the path of “immigration is vital for Canada”. Not only can Canada not survive without immigration, but it is a hallmark of the country’s history of multiculturalism. There is an economic case for immigration to Canada, a skill-shortage case, a demographic case, as well as a diversity case built around this narrative.
While the anti-immigration rhetoric is exactly that, the pro-immigration case is not without its faults either. In fact, if not tethered to overall national policy outcomes, it could perhaps be more damaging.
I have written earlier, that there has been a conscious attempt by Canada at “commodifying” or “marketing” immigrants and refugees for what they can bring to the country, based on political priorities. This is a one-sided approach as opposed to immigration being part of an integrated, long-term strategy that would equally benefit both Canada and its immigrants. While Canada’s policy grounds its approach in skill-shortages and economic need, immigrants seek much more from their journey to a new home.
This is why immigration policy must integrate key economic and social sectors in parallel with increasing immigration levels. This includes housing, employment, skill accreditation, and even financial guidance - all systems that immigrants need to access to be able to settle in a new country. For instance, when I first arrived in Canada, I was unable to access housing because no one would trust me as a newcomer to be financially stable.
Likewise, the challenges of the integration of skilled immigrants entering the labour market have been highlighted repeatedly. These include a lack of pre-arrival information and guidance and various stress factors present in the job market that new immigrants cannot easily navigate. This further illustrates the commoditization aspect, where Canada is more focused on getting immigrants into the country.
Canada may admit the highest number of immigrants among all OECD countries, but it has also underemployed a large number of them, particularly in the highly-skilled category. For instance, the Express Entry System introduced in 2014 to better align immigration to skill-sets, was meant to ensure that those who came to Canada did so with the advantage of a job offer upon arrival. However, studies have found that protectionist policies in the Labour Market Information Assessments (LMIA) used by employers, often undermined this process to disadvantage non-native Canadians. This is despite highlighting the need for skills in various technical areas such as medicine, engineering, IT and nursing.
It can therefore be surmised, that Canada is either unwilling or unable to absorb many of the skilled immigrants it hopes to attract, demonstrating a disconnect between what Canada and its immigrants should expect from each other. The country puts an economic figure on the contribution of its immigrants based solely on its market needs, whereas immigrants expect their qualifications to be recognized beyond just their degrees.
Likewise, racial discrimination has played a large part in many immigrants being unable to integrate effectively enough, at least in economic terms. Statistics Canada data on employment outcomes among visible minorities, has shown a number of discrepancies among the employment outcomes of different immigrant groups (e.g. South Asians vs. East Asians), some who are more successful than others. This could go against the rhetoric of diversity and inclusion that Canada promotes alongside its immigration needs, where immigrants it seems, are also made to compete with each other based on where they come from. This further aggravates the commoditization aspect, where instead, the focus should lie on eradicating discrimination.
Early studies on the impact of COVID-19 on immigrants, have also shown the widening gap between Canada’s immigrant population and its susceptibility to constrained access to resources. This is not only limited to how Canada initially sidelined temporary migrant workers during the start of the pandemic, limiting their access to mobility and social services. Indeed, another Toronto-focussed study also showed that immigrant communities were disproportionately affected by the economic and social impacts of lockdowns based on their income levels.
If these instances are only some of the outcomes of the pro-immigrant discourse of a welcoming Canada, then does Canada truly have an inclusive immigration policy that views immigrants not as commodities, but as those with varied sets of skills, lived experiences and cultural pasts? Or is it trapping immigrants into yet another stereotype where they are welcome to Canada, but only on Canada’s terms? A stereotype that veers closer to what anti-immigrant populist groups can further feed off.
Immigration is largely a win-win situation related to one of the oldest patterns of behaviour – human movement. To turn it into a situation that pits it against itself, either in positive or negative terms, is one that is both unnecessary and damaging to the idea of immigration.
Canada’s image-building exercise of projecting its immigrants as an example of Canadian exceptionalism, as it is often termed, is in stark contrast to its main objective of immigration fuelling economic growth and circumventing an aging population. It also goes against the real-life experiences of many immigrants, most of whom personally persevere to make their life a success. This ultimately absolves Canada as a host country of the responsibility of not just attracting immigrants, but also retaining them. Immigrants, who want as much from their host country as it wants from them. There is no reason why both objectives cannot work together.