The Liberal government is boosting the base number of immigrants allowed into Canada next year to 300,000, to help drive economic growth as the country grapples with an aging demographic.
Speaking to reporters after tabling his annual report in Parliament, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister John McCallum said the new target "lays the foundation for future growth."
The previous target from 2011 to 2015 was 260,000, but that swelled to 300,000 this year because of what McCallum called the "special circumstances" of the Syrian refugee crisis. That number will now be the permanent base.
The government's economic growth council had recommended raising immigration levels to 450,000 over the next five years, but McCallum rejected that target today.
"That number is a conceivable number for some date in the future, but certainly not for 2017," he said.
There has been much debate over the targeted immigration level at a time when Canada struggles with high unemployment.
There have also been questions about Canada's ability to smoothly integrate newcomers into communities.
"We do it well, but I think we could learn to do it better," McCallum said.
Entries up for economic class
The 2017 targets boost entries for those in the "economic" class — skilled workers, businesspeople and caregivers — to 172,500 from 160,600. In the family class, the number of sponsored spouses, partners, children, parents and grandparents will climb to 84,000 from 80,000.
The government recently committed to bringing in persecuted Yazidi refugees fleeing ISIS genocide, and McCallum said they would be accommodated in the numbers unveiled today.
McCallum said other measures will be announced at a later date to streamline the process for economic applicants and to improve the process for permanent residency for international students. He said the students are among the best candidates to become Canadians, yet they have been "shortchanged" by the system in the past.
Dealing with depopulation
Kevin Lamoureux, the parliamentary secretary to the government House leader, said immigrants not only fill jobs that would otherwise remain vacant and help to develop provincial economies, but they also contribute to the character and social fabric of communities.
If it weren't for immigration, population of his province of Manitoba would have declined in the last decade.
"Immigration plays a critical role in terms of the future of Canada, in particular in regions where the threat of depopulation is a reality. Manitoba and other provinces are subject to that depopulation," he said.
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Alberta MP Tom Kmiec, the Conservative deputy immigration critic, said he agrees "in principle" with the target, but wants more details on the government's plan to bring in the right people to meet regional labour needs.
He also questioned whether the government had carried out "meaningful" consultation with provinces and territories, businesses and human resources professionals.
"The situation in Alberta is very different from, say, New Brunswick, where they are very concerned about more francophone, more French-speaking immigrants coming in," he said. "The same goes for people in Ontario and Quebec."
While Albertans welcome immigrants, there is a lower appetite right now to bring in people who could compete for scarce jobs, Kmiec said, adding the government must adjust the stream to ensure Albertans get first crack at the jobs.
B.C. NDP MP Rachel Blaney criticized the government for not aiming for a higher target.
"We know that immigration is good for the economy and good for communities," she said. "It's disappointing to see us not taking a more ambitious statement on this."
Toronto-based immigration lawyer Lorne Waldman called the increase a "conservative approach" that is prudent to avoid massive pressures on social programs like language training and housing.
"To gradually increase the number is wise, and you want to ensure the Canadian public continues to be supportive," he said.