Asylum seeker crisis? What crisis?

May 25th, 2018

The way some politicians on the right of Canada’s political spectrum are talking these days, you’d think our immigration system is falling apart.

The federal Conservatives want to declare Canada’s entire 8,800-kilometre border with the United States an official port of entry in order to stop the flow of people crossing at unauthorized points and requesting asylum, something more than 27,000 people have done since Donald Trump took office.

And then there’s François Legault, leader of the Coalition Avenir Quebec political party, who says he wants to reduce the number of immigrants allowed into Quebec each year from 50,000 to 40,000 because the province isn’t equipped to handle them.

Legault, who is hoping to become the next leader of Quebec in this fall’s general election, said a CAQ government would also grant new immigrants only conditional residence to ensure they learn French and adapt to Quebec values. If they still haven’t after three years, they’ll have to leave, Legault says, ignoring the fact Quebec doesn’t have the power to do any of this.

Taking care of business

One of the great ironies in all this is the fact Legault, a former entrepreneur and CEO, and many of those talking this nonsense also like to portray themselves as pro-business. The only problem is, pretty much the entire Canadian business community, from Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz to the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, is saying Canada needs more immigration, not less.

Businesses across Canada are struggling to stay afloat because they can’t find enough employees. Quebec, for instance, has been experiencing record employment of late, which means the pool of available labour is running dry.

Contrary to the crisis being portrayed by Legault and other politicians on the right, the influx of asylum seekers is proving an opportunity for business owners in Quebec and elsewhere to fill vacant positions. Helping matters is a 30-day service standard for processing work permits that the Government of Canada has introduced so they can get to work faster. A triage system is also in the works that will identify an asylum seeker’s work experience and pair them with employers.

One company, the meat producer Olymel, has hired 250 asylum seekers, the Washington Post reported recently. “There is a big need, an urgent need, for employees,” a company spokesman told the newspaper. “[Asylum seekers] are very much willing to work. We train them; they’re very fast … we’re very satisfied.”

Stealing your job? More like saving your job

That doesn’t sound like a crisis to me. Talk to any employer in Atlantic Canada and rural and remote regions around Canada and they’ll tell you the real crisis is Canada’s labour shortage. And the only reason this shortage isn’t worse is thanks to immigration, which is now responsible for about 90 per cent of Canada’s labour market growth.

New Brunswick economist Richard Saillant summed it up in a recent interview with CIC News: “Rather than stealing your job, immigrants are actually key to sustaining your job,” he said. “If employers can’t find workers, all of the factory is at stake … immigration is the very basis for sustainability in terms of employment in the years ahead.”

Germany, which has received more than a million asylum seekers in recent years, has put in place innovative programs to try and tap the labour potential of this primarily young group. As reported in the New York Times recently, the German government has relaxed its asylum rules to fast-track claimants into vocational apprenticeships and turn them into workers and, ultimately, taxpayers.

It’s an experiment that’s both costly and risky, its architects admit. But if it works, it could translate into a bump of one per cent or more in economic growth by 2025 at a time when Germany would otherwise be coping with an aging population and dropping productivity.

Managing the influx of asylum seekers effectively is clearly essential, as is maintaining public confidence in Canada’s immigration system.  But with Canada facing an aging population of its own — and the challenges that produces in terms of workers — we now have an opportunity to help ourselves by helping others. François Legault might call that a crisis, but I don’t.

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