Small Business

Companies need to lead on immigration

Written by James Cowan

What will the federal government do to attract more skilled immigrants to Canada? The question has been asked so incessantly that in October, John McCallum seemed peevish when confronted with complaints from high-tech firms about the barriers to recruiting global talent. “I hear them loud and clear—there’s too much red tape; it takes too long.€¦ We get it. We’re going to address it. But not today,” the immigration minister told reporters.

McCallum’s what-more-do-you-people-want-from-me tone was warranted. He had just announced a 7% increase in economic immigration, which includes business people and skilled workers. The move will bring a wave of new talent. The problem is, corporate leaders want a tsunami.

An advisory panel led by Dominic Barton of McKinsey recently proposed hiking the target by 50% to 450,000 people over the next five years. In 2021, that would bring in roughly 75,000 extra economic immigrants, along with their families. This is a modest objective measured against other countries, the panel noted, adding 0.3 percentage points to Canada’s population annuallycompared with the 1% boost in Australia (two-thirds of whom are skilled workers).

McCallum’s 2017 benchmarks aren’t too far off from Barton’s proposal. The panel called for 15,000 additional economic immigrants next year; the government’s actual target boosts the number by 11,900. Ottawa also introduced a new 30-days-per-year visa to facilitate workplace exchanges. But the government still hasn’t embraced aggressive long-term targets, or made it easier for top talent to permanently enter the country or international students to stay here.

Both McCallum and Navdeep Bains, the innovation minister, have hinted more reforms are coming. But they’re also clearly concerned that the Canadian public will see immigrants as competition in the job market, not economic saviours. “[When] we say we want to bring more immigrants in because it’s good for the economy, we still get pushback,” Bains admitted recently. It’s true that 68% of Canadians feel newcomers should do more to fit in, according to a poll conducted by the Angus Reid Institute. But the same study found 79% felt our immigration policy should be shaped by “economic and workforce needs.” If you want to make a case for immigration as economic stimulus, Canadians are willing to listen.

That can’t be left to the politicians, however. If companies want better immigration policies, then they need to stop complaining to John McCallum and start selling to the public. Companies like RBC have faced public outrage for seeming to favour foreign workers over Canadians. But there’s a difference between exploiting loopholes in the rules and helping to build a system that benefits everyone. We need to talk about the immigrants who have launched successful startups, like Wattpad’s Allen Lau. We also need to talk about global leaders like Google’s Sam Sebastian, an American who is helping to build this country’s tech sector. It’s time for business leaders to convince Canadians that immigrants don’t steal jobs—they create them.

James Cowan is the editor-in-chief of Canadian Business.

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