The Liberals are pointed in the right direction but proceeding much too slowly

The Liberals have made a mess of our immigration system. The out-of-control result has exacerbated pressures on housing, health, and other services.

On March 21 Marc Miller, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship announced a plan to have a plan to fix it.

There are three sources of population growth. Natural increase is the difference in numbers of births and deaths. It is a small positive for Canada as a whole, and a small negative for Nova Scotia and the other Atlantic provinces.

Selective choice of immigration applicants has been successful in Canada for decades. It brings people with a high probability of contributing needed skills and being economically successful. This has been bringing close to 500,000 new Canadians a year, and that is scheduled to remain as the yearly target.

Increases in non-permanent residents have become a dominant source of uncontrolled population growth in the last 18 months. They include asylum seekers, international students, and temporary foreign workers. Historically they would have been stable or growing slowly. In 2023 they grew by 800,000, out of total growth of 1,270,000. No wonder there is a housing crisis.

Asylum seekers were arriving in large numbers at the Roxham Road unofficial border crossing until the Liberals belatedly shut it down. The flow shifted to airplanes in almost comparable numbers, because the Liberals waived visa requirements that had been installed by the Harper government. They have now renewed those restrictions.

International students ballooned from 325,000 in 2015 to more than 900,000 last year. This was addressed in January with a declaration that the number of new student visas would be reduced by 35% in 2024. The continuing visas for multi-year students will not be affected.

The number of new visas will be allocated to provinces based on their share of population. That being the case, the vast majority of reductions will be felt by Ontario and British Columbia, so Nova Scotia can anticipate little or no reduction. Allocations by institution were released on Thursday.

Last to be addressed has been the number of “temporary” foreign workers (TFW’s). They are the biggest source of non-permanent resident growth. This has happened because of a continuing widening of the ways to get in, and because employers became more and more interested in using the program.

This was especially so for low wage work, creating downward pressure on wages for permanent residents. The increase in work permit holders in Canada jumped from 150,000 in the twelve months ending September 30, 2022, to 555,000 in the following twelve months.

The policy changes to this stream so far are small, clarifying that graduates of public-private college partnership programs aren’t eligible for post-graduation work permits, and restricting open work permits for spouses of international students to only spouses of students in master’s, doctoral and other professional degree-granting programs.

Starting May 1, employers in four sectors (manufacturing of food products, wood products, and furniture; and hospitality) will see a reduction in the share of their work force that they can hire through the low-wage stream of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program – to 20 per cent from 30 per cent. Hospitals, nursing and residential care facilities and construction companies will not be affected.

Miller says that he wants to consult the provinces and territories in May before making more substantial changes to the multitude of TFW programs.

Given the persistent shortages and high cost of housing, all levels of government have an interest in making this work. That said, all of them will be besieged by employers not wanting to lose access to low wage foreign workers and universities wanting greater allocations of university student visas.

In the meantime, Miller has set a tentative goal of reducing the total non-resident share of Canada’s population from 6.2% to 5% by 2027. Non-permanent residents have been increasing by 100,000 per month in the past year.

The 5% goal would mean that the surge of non-permanent residents will become a reduction of 400,000 over the three-year period. Such a slowdown would give the delivery of new housing a chance to catch up with demand.

Details about how this will be achieved are scheduled for the fall, a full year after the government recognized the problem. If the goal is achieved, Canada’s annual growth will be reduced to slightly more than the number of approved immigrants, currently 500,000.

If Nova Scotia receives its proportionate share it would mean growth of about 13,000, plus or minus net interprovincial movements. That would be a big help in alleviating the housing crisis.

The Liberals are pointed in the right direction but there are too many ifs. Given their clumsy stumble into this mess, it would be quite a surprise if they implement the changes needed to achieve their goal.


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