How to fix an 'upside-down' immigration system

The federal government recently moved to tilt Canada's immigration system towards younger, blue-collar workers and away from those with professional credentials. But as Natasha Fatah reports, that's not going far enough for some.

You know all those "illegal aliens," meaning the Mexican migrant workers that the Americans want to throw out? If we had any sense, we'd bring them to Canada.

It is not an idea you hear very often. But it is exactly what James McNiven proposed, albeit more for dramatic effect, at the annual Palmer Conference on immigration at the University of PEI this summer.

Every single speaker and contributor at the conference agreed immigration is good for Canada's growth and prosperity.

But McNiven, a professor emeritus of public policy at Dalhousie University, and a former deputy minister of development in Nova Scotia, feels it is an absolute necessity to avoid economic catastrophe.

When I approached him after the conference, he allowed he wasn't being totally serious about his throw-open-the-doors proposal. "But, I wanted to point out there is a major labour shortage issue in this country" and something dramatic has to be done about it.

"It's absurd to have PhD taxi drivers," who have been lured here from developing countries with false hopes, he says, and so he is proposing a radical turn in our immigration policy.

Dalhousie professor Jim McNiven, a former deputy minister of development in Nova Scotia. (Dalhousie University website)

As he sees it, Canada should not be seeking out the doctors and engineers from India and China the way we have been.

"We have a bias towards professionals, and what we need are actually unskilled labour, guys who will come here and be industrious and start businesses.

"We need old fashioned immigrants who come with minimal skills and lots of drive."


McNiven acknowledges that Canada is going through difficult economic times right now, with relatively high unemployment, which makes the idea of increasing the number of unskilled or semi-skilled immigrants seem strange.

But he argues that Canada's continually low birth rate will mean that there will not be enough people to fill all the needs of the labour force in the near future and so maintain the tax revenues required to care for an increasingly aging population.

How did we get into this mess? According to McNiven, the Canadian approach to immigration is completely out of date.

"The system is upside down," he says. It was designed in the 1980s, and despite even recent attempts at change, it has remained essentially the same and not in line with what Canada needs now and over the next 10 to 20 years.

During the 1980s, when McNiven was deputy minister of development in N.S., he says he saw first-hand the pressure to keep the "good jobs," the higher paying professional jobs, for Canadian-born young people who were just entering the workforce.

So, starting in the '80s, the Canadian government sought out and invited doctors, lawyers and engineers from other parts of the world to come to Canada.

However, once they arrived, many found that their professional credentials, which were the very reason they were accepted into the country, were considered insufficient.

As a result, many were forced to take on the lower level jobs that Canadians didn't want. And that system remains largely intact to this day.

Ask any immigrant to this country, and they'll tell you the two cruellest words they've had to encounter while looking for a job in their field of expertise are "Canadian experience."

If you're a newcomer to this country how are you supposed to have any? Thus begins the cycle of underemployment among so many of Canada's immigrants.

'Simple snobbery'

The federal government has embarked on changes to the immigration system, somewhat along the lines McNiven is suggesting, and Canada continues to accept more newcomers per capita than most other developed nations.

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, putting more emphasis on younger, blue-collar workers. (Canadian Press)

Beginning next year, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney recently announced, there will be changes to the points grid used to apply under the Federal Skilled Worker program, tilting it more towards younger workers and those with trades learned on the job rather than formal education. 

(To get there, however, the Conservative government is unilaterally doing away with an almost five-year backlog of those who applied under the old rules, a move that has provoked a series of court challenges.)

For his part, McNiven feels we have to do more and do it more quickly. Our immigration system needs to loosen up and start chopping away at the impediments, he says. Too much bureaucracy is keeping people out.

But don't we need to be selective? Don't we want the so-called best and brightest to come to this country? McNiven feels this argument is "simple snobbery."

He also says it's unethical to take the most educated and accomplished citizens of one, often developing, country, and bring them to Canada only to deny them the opportunities they deserve.

They "just end up working in hotels and cleaning homes," he says, adding "it's unfair to plunder countries of their skilled labour."

He says the right thing to do is to bring immigrants who don't have great opportunities in their own countries but can contribute to Canada, and be rewarded and grow here.

McNiven recognizes that this is not an easy sell. But he says that unless we address the problem of Canada's looming labour shortage through immigration, the economic crisis in this country "is going to be drought rather a hurricane."