Canada’s Immigration Dilemma


The subject of immigration in Canada presents a great dilemma for many Canadians. Like other countries of the western world, Canadians do not have enough children of their own to maintain the population at its present level. At the same time, the overall population, which is around 33 million, is getting older. Baby boomers are looking at retirement. Many calculate the amount of income they will need in order to maintain a decent standard of living. Their calculations include government pensions. The absence of a sufficient younger, active, working population to continue paying for the system of pensions presently in place and on which our retirees depend is well known and understood in the country.

Since the problem is staring us in the face, the evident solution is to turn to immigrants from other countries to make up for our shortfall. But Canada’s ethnic situation was already complex enough as, in addition to the original inhabitants known as the First Nations, the founding populations of Canada, the French and the English, have in the past been referred to as “The Two Solitudes”. The descendants of the original French settlers are concentrated mainly in the province of Quebec. There are French-Canadians in other provinces as well, though, generally, not in large numbers.

Over the last few decades, many French Quebecers started worrying about their diminishing numbers in other provinces as former French speakers began primarily using English in their daily transactions and sending their children to English schools, either due to a lack of French schools in the area they lived in or to facilitate their own integration or that of their children. The net result was a steady decrease of that population declaring French as their mother tongue in Canadian censuses.

Inside Quebec, after the English conquest in 1759, in order not to lose the French language and their religion (Catholicism), the French population of 60,000 people coalesced around the Church. The Church was seen as the unflinching defender of that population’s language and culture. Moreover, again under the influence of the Church, French-Canadian families were having many children, so much so that in the 1960s, Canada was home to approximately six million French-speaking people.

This is when modernity set in. French-Canadians decided that the place of religion was to remain in the church and, parallel to what was taking place elsewhere in the democratic world, the birth rate plummeted. From 1956 to 1961, the birth rate was 4.2 children per 1,000 married women. In the 1990s, Quebec’s birthrate was the lowest of all Canadian provinces. From 1986 to 1991, the Quebec fertility rate was only 1.5, therefore very much less than the 2.2 children needed for a population to replenish itself.

In the short term, recent government measures such as a generous parental-leave program have contributed to an increase in the birth rate. While in 2004, Quebec had 74,200 births, the birth rate rose in 2006 to 10.6 per 1,000 population, compared to the national rate of 10.5. According to government statistics, there was a further increase in 2007, albeit a small one. However, these small increases in the young population do not come close to remedy the wide gap with the need for replenishment of the work force.

Consequently, for both Canada as a whole and Quebec in particular, the issue of immigration has become a crucial one. The question of who will support pensioners comes to mind immediately, according to a 2008 survey by the respected CROP polling firm 38% of Quebec workers say they plan to retire before age 60 and 61% plan to retire between the ages of 55 and 64. The implications are food for thought. European immigrants are now outnumbered by immigrants from the rest of the world.

Strong arguments against discrimination have led to a system of points awarded in considering whether one qualifies as an immigrant. The philosophy behind that point system is that an immigrant should have the prerequisites likely to make for harmonious integration. Having skills needed for employment, a support system in terms of already established family or friends, and knowing one of the two official languages of Canada, either French or English, are a help in determining if one should be accepted as an immigrant.

Many people arriving as immigrants came from countries that were once British colonies, such as Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Jamaica and Nigeria.

There is also a large percentage of immigrants coming from China. If continued unabated, these substantial numbers would have drowned the diminishing numbers of French-speaking Canadians. Also worrisome to concerned defenders of the French language was the fact that most of these immigrants in Quebec could function effectively in English and never had to learn any French.

The federal government has taken some measures to promote the language. For example, food packages must contain French as well as English. Although sometimes difficult to implement, federal government offices across the land must be able to offer their services also in French.

In Quebec, restrictive laws on the English language have promoted the use of French, particularly in Montreal. The ultimate problem, however, remains the small French population within a surrounding sea of speakers of English in North America.

Eager to maintain its predominately French speaking status, the province of Quebec came to an agreement with the federal government in 1978 and was given a measure of authority to select their immigrants. The Quebec government could select a percentage of immigrants based on the proportion of the population in Quebec versus that of Canada. The Quebec government decided to increase the number of French-speaking immigrants which it found mostly in Haiti and French-speaking Arabs from the Maghreb, mainly Algeria and Morocco. Quebec also looked for immigrants from Latin-American countries with the premise that they could adapt easily to the French language and culture.

Canada and Australia are the two leading countries with the highest proportion of their total population born in other countries. In 2004, Canada received over 230,000 immigrants. Being a democratic society, Canada does not restrict immigrants to any one part of the country. People arriving in Quebec or any other province are free to move elsewhere if they choose to. It is not rare to find that immigrants arriving in Quebec who have an easier time with English than French will not stay long in that province, thereby causing havoc with all the calculations of the Quebec government.

In the past, Canada prided itself on being different from the U.S. in its philosophy regarding the integration of its different ethnic populations.

Where the U.S. favoured the “melting pot” approach, Canada favoured the “multi-cultural” approach, encouraging immigrant societies to perpetuate their own culture in this country. Supposedly this approach would contribute to harmonious relations with other ethnic groups, with the general population as a whole, and result in happy integration within Canadian society.

Of late, the multi-cultural approach has been called into question. The issue under debate has been whether that concept of integration does, in fact, facilitate integration or whether, instead of contributing to unity, it tends to keep people apart and is contrary to Canadian unity, accentuating differences within the Canadian population. The question has not yet been resolved.

There are many problems that come as no surprise as they exist in all western countries. Immigrants have always known that the first few years in a new country could be difficult years. I, myself, did not have an easy time when I came to Canada many years ago and neither did my friends also young European immigrants. Even the many well-educated immigrants struggle because their academic credentials are often not recognized as equal to similar credentials awarded by Canadian institutions. Unfortunately for them, their expectations of recognition of those credentials are disappointed more often than not.

Stories abound of medical doctors, some with much previous experience, not granted the license needed to practice as doctors in Canada. There is much need for more medical practitioners in Canada, but both the medical lobby and the government budgets set strict restrictions on who can practice as a doctor. There is talk, of relaxing some of those restrictions, but one should not hold one's breath. We've been there before.

Of course, the example of doctors is often given prominence. But similar obstacles apply to many other professionals who also are told that they lack Canadian experience. However, they are supposed to have been informed before their departure that they will not be able to practice medicine, law and some other professions. Many believe that there is an element of subtle discrimination as many of them are members of what is termed visible --- meaning non-white --- minorities. Be that as it may, immigrants always faced difficulties in a new country. Yet, they keep coming, and in great numbers. The backlog of waiting, hopeful, would-be immigrants is estimated at somewhat below but close to one million.

There are other problems. As in other occidental countries, many would-be immigrants use the back door to come in. They arrive, legally or not, and then claim refugee status. The traffic of would-be refugees ranges in the billions of dollars. As a result of a ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada, anyone in Canada applying for refugee status has the right to have his claim being heard in person. Many of those applying have had a story of persecution concocted for them before they arrive here. Some purchase their story once in Canada or have their history of persecution "improved" by newly-found friends in their community. That way, many applicants for refugee status are able to obtain the immigrant status that would otherwise be denied to them under normal conditions.

In summary, Canada faces many of the same problems faced by several other western countries: a population growing older that needs to be replenished and the need to facilitate the integration of newcomers which are of a background different from the descendants of the earlier European population that used to constitute the backbone of the country.

Leon Graub is a former member of the Immigration and Refugee Board recently retired. He came from France to Canada in 1951 and resides in Laval, Quebec.