Chris Friesen speaks softly over the phone from Vancouver, but the pride in his voice is unmistakable. The director of settlement for Immigrant Services Society of British Columbia, Friesen is finalizing the paperwork for a permit to build a $24 million, 58,000 sq ft Welcome Centre for refugees and other immigrants on a piece of prime real estate donated by the City of Vancouver. The centre will house more than 160 residential units, a medical clinic, offices for employment and language services, a refugee trauma treatment centre, a child-care facility, a youth drop-in centre and more.
“We’re aiming to create a new international model, a one-stop shop for immigrant services,” says Friesen. “From what we know there’s nothing like it in the world.”
Friesen is thrilled that nearly two decades of dreaming are about to be rewarded with the bricks and mortar of reality. As a longtime leader in settlement services in Canada, he’s also proud to be part of a sector known around the world for leading the way in immigrant integration, one that benefits from $900 million in federal government investment each year, in a country that consistently has one of the highest levels of immigration in the world. All three federal political parties are emphatically pro-immigration and fall over themselves courting the “ethnic” vote and survey after survey has suggested public support for immigration is higher in Canada than almost anywhere else in the world.
But Friesen and many other Canadians working with immigrants are increasingly uneasy, because the future looks like nothing they’ve seen before – and not in a good way.
Since 2006, but particularly in the past three years, the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper has introduced dramatic changes to the way Canada courts, processes and integrates its immigrants. Among other things, the government eliminated health benefits for many refugees and created new categories of “designated countries of origin” that were deemed too safe to produce refugees (Hungary and Mexico, for example). It cut its own workforce, streamlined the immigration bureaucracy and eliminated the backlog in applications by skilled workers (by throwing out tens of thousands of applications and telling applicants to re-apply, which sparked a class-action lawsuit). It introduced a new two-year “super visa” for parents and grandparents of newcomers to replace permanent sponsorship and is planning to move to a new “expression of interest” system for economic migrants, which will give more power to federal officials to choose potential immigrants based on matching their skills to labour shortages identified by employers.
Some of the changes have been welcomed, in particular the crackdown on crooked immigration consultants, fraudulent investor schemes and marriages of convenience. But there’s a growing anxiety with the most controversial shift of all, a deliberate increase in the number of workers allowed to stay in Canada temporarily (temporary foreign workers, or TFW, as well as international students) as opposed to those putting down roots (permanent residents). The government has boosted the number of TFW admitted annually since 2008, the first time the number of temporary workers exceeded the total number of permanent residents admitted in the same year. In 2012, Canada admitted 213,573 TFW, an increase of almost 12 per cent over the previous year, for a total of 338,189 TFWs by the end of the year – compared to the intake of 257,515 permanent residents. True, the government has recently indicated it’s looking at ways of enabling TFW to become permanent residents, but the overall strategy of encouraging most people to go home when their time is up remains.
Settlement workers argue this strategy treats immigrants as economic units to be acquired and discarded according to the whims of employers, rather than human capital encouraged to help shape Canada’s future. They point to the pitfalls of excluding people from the path to citizenship (Germany’s guest worker saga, anyone?), the vulnerability of TFWs to abuse by employers and the inflammatory government rhetoric about “bogus” refugee claimants and demand to know if we’ve lost our way.
“We are bringing in more than 500,000 people both permanent and temporary on a population base of 37 million, and we haven’t stopped and asked ourselves, ‘What do we want out of an immigration policy for this country?’” says Friesen.
That unease fuelled some of the flurry of activity in the run-up to last month’s National Settlement Conference, the first gathering of its kind in 10 years. More than 400 representatives from the settlement sector in each province and territory flew to Ottawa to talk to federal officials about everything related to settlement: from the changing demographics of Canada’s newcomers, to program and technological innovation, service gaps and accountability. Hundreds more watched the proceedings from webcasts in centres across the country.
The settlement sector was abuzz for months leading up to the conference. Agencies, coalitions and umbrella groups debated what should be on the agenda, what positions they should take, and what priorities needed attention. Carl Nicholson was part of the conference planning committee, which he happily admits “makes me a little biased,” but he believes the conference more than lived up to the expectations. As executive director of the Catholic Centre for Immigrants in Ottawa, Nicholson found it worthwhile to be able to sit down with the country’s immigration bureaucrats and learn more about the policy directions they’ve been given, as well as the funding limitations and staffing reductions they’re dealing with.
“We had some very frank conversations about what the bureaucrats have been told to do and they asked our opinion how best to do it.” says Nicholson, who is also the current president of the board of the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants.
But even Nicholson admits some participants were looking for more.
“Many of us come out of there pretty exhilarated, but some came out thinking there was too much talk, talk, talking at us, and not enough true consultation.” Nicholson argues that the settlement conference, which was all about programming and funding, was not the forum for a wider conversation about policies and strategies. Friesen, co-chair of the National Settlement Council, thinks he knows what is needed.
“I have been suggesting we actually need a royal commission on immigration for this country,” Friesen says. “It would broaden the input from Canadians from across the country around what we want out of immigration policy, how we see it working in the future. There are a number of high-level questions that speak to the heart of Canadian society that cannot be left to any one department or minister.”
Not everyone is calling for a royal commission, but others share Friesen’s sense of urgency around expanding and elevating the national conversation around immigration.
I interviewed Ratna Omidvar, president of Maytree, a Toronto-based foundation, last year when she began publicly calling for a national dialogue on immigration. Omidvar is particularly disturbed by “the discourse emanating from these changes” to Canada’s immigration policy, a discourse that pits the “good immigrant” (the permanent resident who speaks English or French and has a job waiting for them on arrival, or the skilled worker who willingly leaves after filling a gap in our labour market) against the “bad immigrant” (the asylum seekers and the sponsored grandparents, neither of whom fit neatly into any models of income generation).
As a nation, let’s have a discussion and agree on why we have immigration. Then we can agree on how we should conduct the business of immigration, and be sure we meet our short-term and long-term goals and achieve a balance between the two.
When I checked in with Omidvar’s office this week, they didn’t have any progress to report. The federal department of Citizenship and Immigration, meanwhile, told me it regularly consults Canadians, and pointed to its online consultation with the public and meetings with stakeholders to discuss immigration levels.
Asking people to submit their opinions online is not the same thing as having public hearings, but why does it even matter that we have the big talk? University of Toronto professor Jeffrey Reitz has studied public opinion toward immigration and he has a hunch that it’s because we’re afraid that if we start to veer off course, we won’t be able to get back.
“Our immigration program is so much larger than those of other countries, and the belief that we are getting the immigrants we want is kind of the foundation of the whole project,” says Reitz, director of the Ethnic, Immigration and Pluralism Studies program at the Munk School of Global Affairs. “Hints that there are cracks in the walls are taken more seriously for that reason.”
Although the new immigration minister, Chris Alexander, was a smiling and enthusiastic host at the National Settlement Conference, there’s little to indicate he’s interested in expanding the conversation beyond the mechanics of selection and settlement. Indeed there’s more political risk than reward in doing so. Which is why, even as he dreams about the new Welcome Centre in Vancouver, Friesen knows that by the time it receives its first visitors in a few years, he will likely still be waiting for that royal commission.
“I have floated the idea to officials in the department, to the deputy minister and others, and I’ve raised it with the opposition parties. They just say ‘very interesting,’” says Friesen with a chuckle.
“We’re all actors in a tremendous social experiment, and we don’t know what the end result is going to be.”
Department of Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Annual report to Parliament, 2013.