Hey Ontario, Get in the Game

October 29th, 2008

Here’s what the Province of Ontario has to say about immigration on its official website.

“Immigration is a cornerstone of Ontario’s economic prosperity and social fabric”

“More than half of all newcomers to Canada have chosen to settle in Ontario each year since 1987.”

Maybe so, but that was then and this is now.

One reason for Ontario’s continued popularity among landing immigrants is that the city of Toronto and surrounding areas are already home to many diverse and thriving ethnic and cultural communities. Like attracts like and it’s normal that people gravitate to familiarity. But there’s more to the story of how Ontario became the hub for Canadian immigrants. In theory, the Canadian provinces and the federal government of Canada, share powers over immigration. In practice though, during Canada’s first hundred years, it was the Ontario dominated federal government that called the shots in immigration matters. And as a result, Canada’s national immigration policies favoured newcomers whose skills would contribute to Ontario’s economic growth.

The status quo began to change in the 1960’s. As the province of Quebec became more autonomous, it demanded the power to select economic immigrants, who intended to reside in its territory. The federal government agreed and restricted its involvement in Quebec selected candidates to issues of health and security. Furthermore, Quebec insisted that the number of permanent residents admitted to Canada each year include a portion destined to Quebec equal to that province’s percentage of the total Canadian population. Again, the federal government acquiesced. In the years that followed most of the other provinces and territories entered into agreements with the federal government, in which the former assumed a more active role in choosing immigrants who would be willing to settle in their particular area. These provincial/territorial paths to Canada became known as the Provincial Nomination Programs and they now run parallel to the Federal Skilled Worker category of immigration as a way of gaining Canadian permanent residency.

The recently re-elected federal Conservative government has deep roots in Western Canada and is more at ease with the concept of off-loading powers to the provinces and territories. Conservatives are of a mind that local governments have a better understanding of their particular needs, immigration and otherwise, and so they have signaled their intention to downplay the Federal Skilled Worker category even as they promote immigration through the Provincial Nominee Programs.

Ontario, for its part, has to date shown little inclination to become a real player in the Provincial Nomination scheme. It pays lip-service to the idea by offering a meager pilot program that caps out at 500 nominees per year. I suppose the thinking of provincial parliamentarians in Ontario is that they don’t need to spend the time and effort putting together a meaningful Provincial Nomination Program, when such a large number of approved Federal Skilled Worker applicants choose to live in their province. They ought to re-think this strategy because the gravy train is about to leave the station.

In the short-term, a shift in immigration policy at the federal level should have little effect on the flow of immigrants to Ontario. That is because there is currently a queue of a few hundred thousand Federal Skill Worker candidates awaiting assessment and more than half of the ones who are approved will settle in and around the Toronto area. But, in the next couple of years, after the backlog of applications has been dealt with, the number of newcomers to Ontario will dwindle to a trickle unless the province asserts itself with a robust Provincial Nomination Program.

If I were the person responsible for immigration in Ontario, I would take a lesson from Quebec’s playbook. I would approach my federal counterpart égal à égal and advise him or her that Ontario expects to select and receive its proportionate share (1/3 of Canadian residents live in Ontario) of all economic immigrants coming to Canada each year.

The days when Ontario could sit back and let the federal government do its bidding for economic immigrants are over… at least for now, while the Conservatives are in power.

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