Brian Stewart: Europe's job exodus, Canada's immigration shift
A backstory to Canada's changing immigration policy
There is one part of Europe's economic suffering at least that suits Ottawa and the provinces just fine.
The high unemployment among the continent's skilled trade workers has opened a motherlode of tens of thousands of prized immigrants of exactly the type Ottawa now wants to encourage — young, well-educated and fluent in either English or French.
In short, the type who will "fit in" fast without needing much help from costly immigration services, though it is never spelled out quite that bluntly.
This is the type of new arrival that employers won't have to train that much, if at all, and who should help counter the drag effect of our aging population.
Europe's exodus of its job-seeking young is a fascinating sub-story of the economic crisis — and puts the recent changes in Ottawa's immigration policies into a new focus.
Since assuming office, the Harper government has given up on the old one-size-fits-all standard for immigration, and is now ceding much of the search for new immigrants to the provinces and territories — and, more recently, to employers.
As practical as this might seem, these interests are far less concerned with shaping a national approach to new Canadians as they are with what benefits their own demographic interests and businesses in the short term.
The result is that the provinces have responded to soaring European unemployment by actively recruiting there, a message that job-worried Europeans are suddenly listening to in ways they haven't for decades.
"Every time something bad happens in the world people think of Canada as an optional destination for them," Montreal-based immigration attorney David Cohen said recently.
But what is not being discussed here very much is the social impact of a new surge of Europeans to our shores, which will likely have a profound effect on the nature of Canada, as these big, sudden shifts in immigration tend to do.
We became a famously multicultural nation starting in the 1970s when we tightened the tap on traditional European immigration to allow for the first inflows from Asia, South Asia, the Caribbean and Africa.
It was one of the most important — and successful — policy shifts in our modern history, opening us up to the world in a real, human way.
Now we are in the midst of another change and it is not clear how long this swing back to European immigrants will continue.
It could fizzle out when economies there recover. But in the meantime this is no minor event, as is evident in the remarkable and very public surge of young Irish workers to our biggest cities.
More than 40,000 Irish workers poured into Canada in 2010-11 after economic calamity took down the so-called Celtic Tiger. In Toronto alone, a special Irish-Canadian immigration centre is being launched to help the more than 10,000 who arrived on working visas. If the past is any judge, this kind of out-migration from Ireland may be just a modest beginning.
This month thousands of carpenters, electricians, machine operators and the like lined up for hours to attend the Working Abroad Expo in the city of Cork. There they listened to pitches from Canadian and Australian companies who are in strong competition to recruit trades people for mining, construction and health-care.
But even the 300,000 unemployed in Ireland today is but the grim tip of the iceberg when it comes to Europe's economy.
The latest estimates are of 24 million unemployed men and women in the European Union, with jobless numbers running at 23 per cent in Spain (a devastating 49 per cent among young people) and roughly 20 per cent in Greece.
Look at almost any economy except booming Germany and much of Scandinavia and you will find younger workers looking for the exits.
Indeed, the situation is so stark that the EU has even launched a "Youth on the Move" program to help its own young workers pull up stakes and look for work in other countries! Interest from countries like Canada, therefore, comes as a godsend to their beleagured economies.
The federal government recently announced plans to change Canada's clogged immigration system, something that is long overdue, and the focus on Europe surely makes sense at this time.
Still, many of the 600,000 or so potential immigrants now waiting in line for their assessment will resent seeing so many Europeans shoved to the front of the queue as new restrictions and qualifications are implemented.
For a glimpse of the future, we just have to look at Australia, which is a few years ahead of Canada in jumping on the European outflow. (Like Canada, Australia strongly emphasizes English language skills and EU-level standards in trade skills and diplomas.)
"It's quite clear from the Australian evidence that it has the effect of shifting immigration away from non-English speaking countries, China particularly," Mikal Skuterud, an economist at the University of Waterloo, commented in the Globe and Mail recently.
For a country like Canada, which is trying to develop ever-greater trade ties with Asia, this shift could present a delicate balancing act.
The Harper Government is far too politically shrewd to offend specific ethnic groups by reducing their numbers sharply. Canada's immigration will remain multicultural and open to many, at least in theory.
But remember, Ottawa has off-loaded much of the selection process for new immigrants to the provinces, so they will be the ones to have to make the more politically awkward choices over who comes in and who does not.
This new process almost guarantees we'll be seeing a great many more Europeans arriving in the coming years as the complicated new entrance requirement tend to favour them.
Many newcomers will require a guaranteed job in a province before qualifying, which is the kind of thing that these European jobs fairs look to provide.
Of course, how many of these European workers will put down real roots remains to be seen. But they will undoubtedly make a mark.
Interestingly, polls of the Irish who've come here in recent years show most are delighted with their move, and feel they're in much better jobs now and more appreciated.
Fully a third say they would have left even without the economic crisis.
If these views are representative of other younger Europeans who have come here they suggests there may be far more of their countrymen willing to cross the Atlantic with more enthusiasm than Canada even imagined.
It will be interesting to see how our immigrant nation responds to this new face change.