Dismounting the Moral High-horse: Nuancing Canada’s Perceived “altruistic” Approach to Immigration

Canada is a leader in welcoming refugees. Claims that the government holds an altruistic stance on immigration have become part of the collective national consciousness. What is especially surprising is the belief, regardless of political affiliation, that Canadian immigration is a form of charity to newcomers that allows them to start a new life. Whether it be praise for Trudeau’s acceptance of Syrian migrants or criticism of his overly generous refugee acceptance at taxpayers’ expense, many Canadians perceive their country as generous with regards to immigration policy. Although this perceived altruism may appear as a fundamental international responsibility to some, or a misguided charitable policy that holds a high economic cost to others, the notion that immigration policy is not in Canada’s own self-interest is fundamentally wide off the mark. There may be a charitable portion to immigration by accepting refugees (both government funded and privately sponsored) fleeing danger and seeking asylum, but the majority of immigration remains principally economically motivated.

Put bluntly, the question is whether Canada’s policy is really based on welcoming those in need, or not. Does it not restrict admittance to only the best candidates to further its economic agenda, thanks to the points system (as well as other provincial programs aimed at filling employment and skill gaps), whilst natural barriers to illegal immigration do the rest? The underlying motive here is to demystify Canada’s role in “progressive immigration strategies”. The Canadian immigration strategy should more adequately be portrayed as a mix of charitable and economically viable policy rather than erroneously labelling it as one or the other.

A little bit of back story: what do the numbers say?

So, what do we mean by “immigrant”? The term immigrant refers to non-native citizens and non-citizens residing in Canada, excluding temporary foreign workers and those on work or student visas. There are three main classes of immigrants in Canada as defined by Citizenship, Immigration and Refugees Canada: Economic Class, Family Class, and Refugees.

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Note: The 2016 and 2017 figures appear as targets since official numbers have not yet been released for the entire year (only available for the first few quarters).
Source: Immigration data and target data.

Two prominent economists studying migration, Abdurrahman Aydemir and George Borjas, point towards large influxes of “skilled” migration in Canada (mainly due to the points system that favours economic migrants) narrowing the wage inequality gap. They also claim that large influxes of “low-skilled” migrants in the US have had negative labour market impacts, including unemployment and reduced wages. Although their research dates back to 2006, the central policy conclusions remain true today. Canada has seen a steady increase in its admittance of economic class migrants that prioritise Canadian economic welfare over its compassionate international responsibilities towards vulnerable displaced individuals worldwide.

Canada the altruist: the good face of Canadian immigration

As many celebrated the return of the Trudeaumania of the late 1960s, the acceptance of additional thousands of Syrian refugees became one of the cornerstones of the Liberal platform. Between the renaming of Citizenship and Immigration Canada to Citizenship, Immigration and Refugees Canada and the trending #welcomeRefugees Twitter tag, it seemed to usher in a new era of increased appreciation for Canada’s international responsibility. This grand humanitarian gesture towards those in need reaffirmed Canada’s image as a welcoming country, in stark contrast to the rising isolationist, populist and nationalist waves across many western nations.

Although far behind Germany, Canada ranks among the very top regarding inflows of asylum seekers per capita in the world according to OECD estimates. Fulfilling, even surpassing, its international responsibility as per the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Canada has experienced significant growth in its acceptance of permanent residents or immigration numbers, including family reunification through family member sponsoring programs. This increase in diversity puts Canada on the path to nearly one in two residents being either an immigrant or second-generation immigrant (person with at least one parent being an immigrant) by 2036. Although this bright and altruistic depiction of Canadian immigration policy may be inspiring to many, Canadians should remember that the majority of immigration remains economically motivated as opposed to the often-portrayed humanitarian idealism. Refugees and compassionate/humanitarian immigrants remain a small fraction of Canadian immigrants (14.5% per the 2017 immigration target data).

Case against the moral high-horse: nuancing Canada’s altruistic stance

Although it can be flattering to see descriptions of Canada as a compassionate country that is accommodating of migrants of all kinds, one does not need to look far before conceding that such claims need to be nuanced. Despite having become more accommodating over time, the refusal of Jewish migrants and their return to Europe in the wake of the Second World War and rigid ethnic quotas for immigrants (particularly Chinese immigrants before the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1947 since it was inconsistent with the United Nations Charter of Human Rights) still mar Canada’s historical immigration record.

Canadian immigration, which remains mainly self-interested and economically minded largely depends on the points system to filter out “less-skilled” migrants (although this could potentially include “less-skilled” family members of the primary applicant). These economic migrants serve as important drivers of Canadian entrepreneurship and long-term growth, and it is erroneous to dismiss this as Canadian compassion, selflessness or altruism. Economic migrants offset the costs of other more compassionate forms of immigration such as family reunification or refugees. There also exist natural barriers that prevent these “less-skilled” migrants from crossing into Canada illegally. It is easy to claim that Canada accepts many immigrants on compassionate grounds when it doesn’t have to worry about undocumented migrant waves that are largely “low-skilled” and a potential drain on public resources (at least temporarily) and has economic migrants through the points system that offset costs.

Appreciating Canada’s nuanced stance on immigration: balancing humanitarianism and economic benefit

There exist significant benefits to immigration. These range from higher fertility rate in second-generation immigrants, to maintaining balanced demographics (landed immigrants or first-generation immigrants tend to be older and do not have this rejuvenating effect), to filling employment gaps and reducing inequality, to increasing the average entrepreneurial spirit and increased average education levels. Therefore, immigration can be a boon for Canadian growth. However, we are cherry picking migrants by largely focusing on economic class migrants. And although Canadians have often welcomed asylum seekers and others in need, choosing the cream of the crop when it comes to economic migrants is primarily motivated by economics and demographics, not altruism.

On a global scale, Canada remains among the highest receivers of refugees per capita, with Germany a mile ahead of the pack. Canadians have, to a certain extent, earned the right to claim some moral high ground when it comes to immigration issues. Recent uptakes of family and refugee class permanent residents indicate a more charitable stance to immigration during the Trudeau government’s tenure. But let us all remember that immigration remains a fundamentally economic issue. The recent reductions in targets for refugees (from 55,800 in 2016 to 40,000 in 2017) and the increase in economic immigrants (from 160,600 to 172,500) are a testimony to that.

Canadians from across the political spectrum appear to believe their country is generous in accepting refugees. Canada may be welcoming to refugees and those in need, but claiming its immigration policy is purely selfless is willful ignorance from the “pro-immigration” camp and an easy target for advocates of reduced immigration. There is nothing inherently wrong with a charitable or a self-benefiting (focused on more productive economic migrants) immigration policy, but let it be clear: Canadian immigration policy, as it currently stands, is mainly driven by economic self-interest. We can debate the merits of a philantropic and charitable versus a self-benefiting immigration policy, but let us be clear: Canadian immigration policy, as it currently stands, is mainly driven by economic self-interest.

 

Samuel MacIsaac is a PhD student at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University, where he specializes in International Economic Policy. He holds a Masters in Economics from the University of Montreal. His research interests include international migration, international finance and trade, and international relations. He has written on issues relating to negative interest rates, the impact of trade on education outcomes and forecasts of immigration within Canada.  

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Three ways Canada can influence the Asia-Pacific region

By Steve Saideman

It is easy to understand why Canadian political leaders tend to focus on Europe rather than Asia/Pacific. Because of the various institutions in Europe, especially the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, we know how Canada fits in. We know what Canada’s role is in Europe, but we have a hard time imagining how Canada can make a difference in the vast waters of the Pacific and among the huge populations of Asia. The answer, to preview, is for Canada to do what it does best.

I recently spent a week in Japan, on a trip organized and paid for by that country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, so you can take what I say with a grain of salt. However, what I suggest below can advance Canadian interests, be true to Canadian values and not blow out the budget.

There are two clear realities: That Canada cannot make much of a difference in any military kind of way; and North Korea is someone else’s problem. The Canadian Navy is simply too small and currently too stressed to do much. Same goes for the Air Force. North Korea is the most immediate threat with its nuclear-weapons development, missile tests and awful regime, but Canada will have to rely on others to address North Korea. Canada simply lacks the tools to influence North Korea or provide security for the neighbourhood. So, we need to focus on what Canada can do as the region faces the growing pains of China.

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Is excluding Syria’s unaccompanied men evidence-based policy?

By Simon Palamar

Among the promises the federal Liberals made in the recent election campaign were to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by year’s end, and a return to evidence-based policy making.

Now the government admits that they will not be able to settle 25,000 Syrians in Canada by the end of the year, and that it may take until February. This may be a good thing. After all, taking a few more weeks to ensure that services and support are in place is an acceptable delay, especially if it improves the chances that refugees coming to Canada will be able to successfully restart their lives here.

The more troubling issue is the decision on who from Syria will be allowed into Canada; that is, no unaccompanied males under the government-sponsored program (except for gay, bisexual, and transsexual males, who are remarkably vulnerable to predation in parts of Syria, and who should be welcomed to Canada). Is the new Canadian government  already violating its pledge to make policy on the basis of evidence, rather than ideology?

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Does Merging Improve Aid Efficiency?

By Rachael Calleja

In foreign aid, ‘efficiency’ (which is distinct from ‘effectiveness’) usually refers to the costs associated with administrating aid programs, that is, the costs of running aid agencies and activities related to ODA programming and delivery. Despite being necessary for operating an aid agency, administrative costs are frequently referred to as a negative function of ODA that donors seek to reduce. In Canada, for example, the 2007 Budget listed “improving efficiency through reduced administrative costs…” as a key way to improve the effectiveness of Canadian aid.

The 2013 merger of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) to form the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD) led some to speculate that the reorganisation would spark efficiency gains for the government by reducing the duplication of efforts and cutting administrative costs. While efficiency gains were not the main or official justification for the merger, which was said to improve the coherence of Canada’s foreign policy, some observers at the time remarked that job cuts and efficiency gains would be “hard to avoid”.

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Introducing Canada Among Nations 2015 – Elusive Pursuits, Book Launch

By Steve Saideman

A week from today, on October 29th at noon, we are holding a book launch of the next edition of Canada Among Nations, Elusive Pursuits: Lessons from Canada’s Interventions Abroad.  The event will be in room 270, 2nd floor, Residence Commons, at Carleton University.

What is the book about?  Every year, NPSIA assesses Canada’s place in the world via a Canada Among Nations volume.  For the past few years, it has been in partnership with CIGI.  The theme of this issue is on learning the lessons from past interventions.  Why?  Because we have been profoundly frustrated by the mixed results and by the government’s refusal to learn lessons.

Afghanistan was supposed to be different, as the government did put together a serious lessons learning exercise.  At the end, it was buried–not only have I not been able to access it via Access to Information (my appeal is now more than two years old), but it was also not disseminated to the people making and implementing Canadian foreign and defence policy.

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The trouble with Canada’s approach on maternal health

By Valerie Percival

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is proud of Canada’s engagement on maternal health. The Muskoka Initiative, launched during Canada’s G8 presidency in 2010, has committed US$7.3 billion (with $2.85 billion from Canada) to address maternal mortality and child health. During the current election campaign, the Prime Minister refers to it as an example of Canada’s leadership on the world stage. Supporters include Melinda Gates and Ban Ki-moon. The money has undoubtedly shone a light on a key global health issue and saved lives.

What’s the problem?

The problem is that we don’t want women and girls just to survive. We want them to thrive. Canada’s current approach to maternal health may keep girls and women alive, but it does not promote a context that improves their life chances. It’s simply not good enough. Not for a country like Canada.

A scroll through the list of projects funded by the Muskoka Initiative reveals a clear focus on the provision of health care services: Canada builds delivery rooms, provides equipment, and trains health care workers.

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The sorry state of Canada’s foreign policy debate

By Valerie Percival

Much of the debate about foreign policy is directed towards the elected government, and the political positions it takes on current international issues. These positions deserve public debate and scrutiny, particularly given the upcoming October election. But what about the machinery behind the elected government? Much of foreign policy actually revolves around the day-to-day performance of unelected leaders within the bureaucracy. Do we encourage these leaders to develop and maintain skills – the knowledge base, the willingness to assess available research and evidence, and the intellectual curiosity necessary to be innovative in the face of new challenges? Perhaps this should also be an issue for debate during our election campaign.

To effectively teach in the field of international affairs, professors face several challenges. The field covers pretty much everything these days, from the traditional — conflict, security, trade, and development — to the more novel — health, environment, energy, finance, and more. The field is also prolific; new ideas and ways to view the world constantly emerge. Moreover, the world itself continually changes — the unexpected is always around the corner and tomorrow will not be like today. Explaining current events can be difficult. Yet explanation is definitely easier than predicting what will happen next year, or even next week.

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