Griffith: Canada badly needs an immigration reset

The recent cabinet shuffle allows the federal government to take action so that housing, health care and infrastructure aren’t unduly strained by new arrivals.

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The government has largely ignored the impact of high levels of immigration on housing availability and affordability, health care and infrastructure. Belated recognition that current policies are not working to the benefit of all Canadians may be the reason behind the appointment of a new minister of Immigration, Marc Miller, and the reassignment of  the former minister of Immigration, Sean Fraser, to housing and infrastructure.

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Minister Fraser arguably will have to deal with some of the mess he and the government created with the large increases in both permanent and temporary residents, pushing up housing costs and burdening existing infrastructure. Minister Miller will likely be more attuned to concerns about immigration given that he is from Quebec and thus more familiar with immigration critiques regarding the demographic impact on Quebec.

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Moreover, the nature of conversations has changed. When, some two years ago I wrote an article for Policy Options entitled Increasing immigration to boost population? Not so fast, there were few voices questioning the government’s planned expansion of immigration. Now, there are almost weekly commentaries and reports, ranging from the banks to economists, the International Monetary Fund and others, noting deteriorating productivity, housing availability and affordability, stress on health care and infrastructure. Even the major boosters of increased immigration have shifted their messaging to “growing well” or even calling for a pause in increases.

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While immigration is not solely responsible for the increase in housing costs, the link is being seen and could lead to newcomers being the scapegoats for poor policy decisions. The significant drop in support for the Liberal government may reflect this very personal issue to Canadians.

While at Immigration, Fraser was able to increase levels easily, whereas as housing and infrastructure minister, he will be confronted with the real time lags, making it impossible to show concrete results before the 2025 election. So it’s not a matter of “better communications” but rather of complex delivery with a wide range of government and private sector actors.

Miller, depending on his mandate letter, has an opportunity to reset or at least adjust  immigration policies and programs to take account of recent commentary and realities. He will not be able to ignore these issues even if his initial comments confirm planned increases. The annual plan on the number of immigrants this fall provides an opportunity for a reset should the government choose to do so.

Given that a complete pivot to a more evidence-based approach is unlikely, here are some modest suggestions that make sense from an immigration and economic perspective that may be politically sellable.

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To start with, the plan should be broadened to include plans for temporary residents levels rather than just permanent residents levels, given that some 60 per cent of all new residents are temporary workers and students, many of whom transition to permanent residency.

Given time lags in building housing, increasing the capacity of the health-care system and addressing infrastructure gaps, the government should freeze 2023 levels of 465,000 for the next few years. More ambitiously, the government could reduce future levels to the lower 2024 range of 410,000.

The current open-ended levels on temporary residents (students and workers) should be replaced by hard ranges based on 2023 levels for similar reasons. Furthermore, the government needs to consider seriously the introduction of a cap-and-trade system for temporary residents to reduce the numbers over time to address weak productivity, as the University of Waterloo’s Mikal Skuterud has suggested.

Lastly, the government needs to take steps to further broaden the plan to include the impacts of immigration on housing, health care and infrastructure, including measures to address these impacts, rather than as a discrete program.

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Miller’s mandate letter will indicate the extent to which this is possible. But these changes would not necessarily be perceived as divisive or xenophobic given that the impacts on housing, health care and infrastructure affect everyone, immigrants and Canadian-born alike. Failure to pivot to a more comprehensive approach that incorporates these considerations into immigration programs will not only worsen the quality of lives of Canadians but may prove politically damaging to a government long-in-the-tooth and losing popular support.

Andrew Griffith is the author of “Because it’s 2015 …” Implementing Diversity and Inclusion; Multiculturalism in Canada: Evidence and Anecdote; and Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias: Resetting Citizenship and Multiculturalism. He blogs at Multiculturalism Meanderings. He is the former director general for Citizenship and Multiculturalism and has worked for a variety of government departments. He is a fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and Environics Institute.

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