Cornies: Immigration from India presents opportunity, challenges

The flow of immigrants to Canada from India has long been a steady stream. During the past decade, however, it has become a fast-flowing river.

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Harpreet Singh got his first look at London, Ont., from behind the wheel of a Canada Cartage tractor-trailer.

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His employer had a contract with Metro Inc., the retail chain, to haul groceries between the GTA and smaller centres, including London. And after 10 years of running loads from Ontario to Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin, Singh seized the opportunity to drive shorter runs.

“I came to London two or three times a week,” he says. “That’s when I fell in love with London and decided to move here.”

Singh was eight years old when he landed at Pearson airport in Toronto in June 1994. His father, a Sikh refugee who had arrived in Canada in the 1980s, was granted permanent residency status in the early ’90s, then brought his family from Punjab, India. Harp was raised in Etobicoke and got his first job at McDonald’s. He was married at the age of 18 and found work as a security guard before beginning a decade-long stint as a long-haul trucker.

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Now, with a growing family, he’s given up life on the road and become an entrepreneur. Last year, Singh started Good Times, a local party supply business. He’s studying to become a real-estate agent. And this week, he plans to open another venture in partnership with Jagvir Singh, a childhood friend. London Haveli, a restaurant at Viscount and Wonderland roads, will serve authentic fare from their north Indian homeland.

Harp speaks with a degree of reverence about Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s radical overhaul of Canada’s immigration policies in 1978, which defined refugees as a distinct group of immigrants in Canadian law and promoted family reunion, diversity and non-discrimination as key pillars. Without Trudeau’s stance – that immigration to Canada would no longer favour whites – his father and his family may not have survived the terrorist attacks against Sikhs.

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The flow of immigrants to Canada from India has long been a steady stream. During the past decade, however, it has become a fast-flowing river.

According to data from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), permanent residents admitted to Canada from India between 2015 and 2021 rose 225 per cent. Since 2013, it has more than tripled. In 2022, India far outpaced China, Afghanistan, Nigeria and the Philippines, the next-largest source countries for permanent residents.

Dig into the data a little further and another trend becomes evident, though it will be no surprise to Canadian cities that host a university, college or – in the case of London – both.

In 2015, the number of study permits issued by IRCC to students from India amounted to nearly 32,000. Last year, that number was 226,100 – a seven-fold increase. In most cases, those visas allow students to work up to 20 hours a week, giving them the option to take part-time jobs, usually entry-level, at local businesses.

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The study permits allow students to get Canadian educational credentials, but also provide them with a foothold on the path toward permanent residency and citizenship.

Post-secondary institutions, meanwhile, have become addicted to the exponentially higher tuition rates they charge foreign students. The influx of cash helps bridge the gap between institutional ambition and stagnant funding from provincial governments. For post-secondary administrators, foreign-student tuitions are methamphetamines for their spreadsheets.

Geographically, Canada is three times the size of India. While Canada celebrated reaching the population milestone of 40 million in mid-June, India surpassed China in late April to become the world’s most populous country: 1.425 billion. Each day, an average of 86,000 babies are born in India, compared to 49,400 in China. The economic potential of India is huge and is destined to become bigger.

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What’s more, writes Avantika Chilkoti, international correspondent for The Economist, India’s migrants “are both more numerous and more successful than their Chinese peers. The Indian diaspora [18 million] has been the largest in the world since 2010.”

At a time of rapidly shifting geopolitical fault lines, western countries are sidling up to India, the world’s biggest democracy, to build their economic prospects and keep India from being drawn too far into the orbits of Russia or China. The red-carpet treatment given Prime Minister Narendra Modi by the Biden administration in Washington is only the most recent example.

Yet Modi’s anti-democratic tendencies, including his unofficial support of violence that targets Muslims, Christians and Sikhs, while favouring the Hindu majority, are straits that Canada needs to navigate carefully, both diplomatically and economically.

Ignoring or minimizing those breaches of democracy, peace and equality would be a betrayal of all those who sought and found refuge and security in Canada’s arms.

Yet, in Chilkoti’s words, “it is vital for the West to keep India on-side. Despite its backsliding, it remains invaluable, much like its migrants.”

Larry Cornies is a London-based journalist.

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