A rational approach to immigration sets Canada apart from most Western countries. Here’s why it works.
From Rwanda deportation schemes to walls on the Rio Grande, rich countries are flailing on immigration. The exception is Canada, which is ramping up its annual immigrant quota to 500,000 from 2025 in an orderly fashion: no “migrant crisis”, no undocumented population living in the shadows. How did the country arrive at such a different approach to its peers?
In 1971 this vast territory with an ageing workforce and declining birth rate needed labour. Then prime minister Pierre Trudeau made Canada the world’s first country to embrace multiculturalism as a national policy, a decision that evolved into today’s immigration system. “Canada is a global social experiment,” says Chris Friesen, coo of Immigrant Services Society of British Columbia (iss of BC). Nowhere is that more evident than in ethnically diverse British Columbia, anchored by Vancouver, where 10 per cent of marriages are interracial. BC’s population grew by 3 per cent in 2022, the fastest in 40 years, and a record 40,000 international migrants settled there in the first quarter of 2023, drawn by a temperate climate and strong economy.
So what makes Canadian immigration tick? First, applicants are judged on a points system. stem degree? Points. French speaker? Points. Under 45? Points. Since immigration is treated as a labour issue, the rubric shifts based on employment needs. Once it prioritised healthcare workers, now tradespeople. The rules are logical, transparent and widely understood. Nobody shows up expecting an open-border policy. Second, linguistic integration is paramount. Publicly funded charities abound teaching English or French, Canada’s two official languages. Canada discourages linguistic isolation and the formation of ethnic enclaves.
In the Vancouver suburb of Richmond, where 60 per cent of residents are foreign born, monocle sees a Pakistani immigrant facilitate English conversation in a room of Taiwanese, Indians and others. They cheer when a South Korean mum recounts how she conducted her son’s parent-teacher conference in English rather than relying on a translation. Down the road, the senior vice-president of a pan-Asian shopping mall proudly explains how the company’s design guidelines require English prominence over native languages on signage. Third, new arrivals aren’t left to the wolves. Annual expenditure of ca$1.8bn (€1.2bn) in civic infrastructure for settlement services operates coast to coast. Social workers assist immigrants with transferring professional credentials, training for new jobs, enrolling children in school and opening a bank account.
Canada is a humanitarian superpower, accepting more than 100,000 refugees and asylum seekers a year from the likes of Syria and Afghanistan. For extreme cases, facilities such as the Vancouver headquarters of iss of BC offer trauma counselling, childcare and temporary housing. But Canada’s generosity is even keeled. When the UN calls, Ottawa doesn’t accept more people than it can handle.
There are, of course, discontents. Public opinion partly blames high rates of immigration for Canada’s housing crisis. Settlement agencies lament that finding affordable rental housing is the biggest hurdle for new arrivals and images of refugees sleeping on Toronto’s streets have shocked the nation. The squeeze of unobtainable housing might hurt prime minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party during soon-to-be-held elections. But Conservative opposition leader Pierre Poilievre remains broadly pro-immigration. So many new voters went through the Canadian system that keeping an open door is popular politics.
Monocle comment: Be pragmatic and show compassion. If you are in a position of influence, be up front about the benefits of immigration rather than simply playing to the negative crowd. A mix of cultures will enhance any community.