Everyone knows about the “American Dream”: the idea that anybody can start with nothing and become a Somebody in their lifetime. I don’t live in America, and after reading Death of a Salesman in grade 10, I don’t put much stock in that concept. Here in Canada, we’re much more realistic. Nobody comes to Canada with the hopes of becoming rich and famous; no, not even native-born Canadians aspire so far (and if they do, they do it in America). So why do so many immigrants come here?
In a word: security. Canada is the land of the social safety net, free health care, and free speech for all. We have low crime rates, high literacy, and we’re nice to everybody. And with all those social programs, there must be more jobs than people in a country where the average family has only 1.1 kids (Statistics Canada, 2007). When fleeing persecution, what refugee wouldn’t be praying for their Canadian temporary residency papers?
Look a little closer, however, and you’ll find that this Northern oasis is more than a little blurry around the edges. Earlier this week, during a conversation activity, I asked my students whether they thought Canada should let in more or fewer immigrants than at present. To my fascination, they were unanimous in their desire for a lower immigration rate. Their reasons were simple: higher numbers of applicants means a bigger backlog when it comes to processing paperwork.
Although they had made it this far, life as a Canadian immigrant turned out to be decidedly different from the picture painted by the Canadian government prior to arrival. You spend three years toeing the line, providing endless documentation, trying to adapt, and never leaving the country lest your waiting period be extended. You realize that your foreign credentials, which were good enough to score you the points you needed to arrive in Canada, aren’t enough to restart your profession here, so you take a low-paying job or live on welfare while you upgrade your skills. You struggle, maybe for years, to understand your new language and culture and are confronted with your social awareness deficit daily.
One student, a Russian immigrant with an engineering degree, approached me after class. “Why does the Canadian government admit immigrants from white collar professions, like doctors, engineers, and professors, when there are no jobs for them? All the jobs are in the trades, they require unskilled labour; why not admit people who are prepared to take these jobs, and not professionals who will have to take a major reduction in pay just for work?”
Good question, Alex. If I knew the answer to that one, I would have run for office by now.
Clearly, he is right that the Canadian immigration system needs a massive overhaul. The points system seems appropriate in theory; it helps immigration officials identify candidates with strong skills and educational backgrounds who will contribute to and not leech from the country’s economic fibre. But realistically, we don’t need those people. Why? We need only revisit those same attractive qualities mentioned above: with a high literacy rate, great health records, and a high average household income, Canadians don’t want or need to take low-paying jobs. (In fact, they aren’t even willing to settle for the rates they get in Canada and are jumping ship to the US – but that’s another post.) White-collar jobs are scarce, and getting scarcer; meanwhile, the market for unskilled jobs is getting flooded with jacked-up resumes from thousands of overqualified applicants. Where, in this equation, does the Conservative government intend to place the “average of 14 percent more immigrants per year” it’s letting in?
It certainly won’t be training all those new recruits, nor will they all get the settlement support they need. As I’ve mentioned before, Canadian Citizenship and Immigration announced just before Christmas 2010 that funding to settlement programming would be cut by 5%, or $70 million dollars, over the course of 2011-2012 (OCASI News Release). My program, Language Instructors for Newcomers to Canada, saw a decrease of 10% this year and will see another 5% next year. Sadly, most programs will become a watered-down version of their former selves, and many have already disappeared altogether.
I’d never thought I’d be an advocate for reducing immigration rates in Canada; I’ve always been of the opinion that we should share the wealth. But it can’t be denied that, while there are many opportunities we can provide by virtue of our high standards for rights, education, and social security, we are doing our immigrants a great injustice by promising more than we can provide. Not all immigrants have access to language programs. Not all immigrants will get jobs that are equal to or better than ones they previously held. And not all immigrants will be welcomed into their community with culture-sensitive programming and support. So, for a country that believes in equal or equalizing opportunity, maybe we would do better to pace our hospitality in order to keep our high standards of quality, and not quantity. Only then will the mirage solidify into the welcoming refuge that Canada has the potential to be.