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The economics of immigration: A boon for B.C. with support in place

Record numbers of newcomers to Canada mean busy support services, accommodation concerns and big questions about the future.
Queenie Choo is CEO of S.U.C.C.E.S.S., one of the largest newcomer services organizations in the province

Last year was one of the busiest years on record for businesses and organizations that help immigrants arrive and settle in Canada, and the immigration boom is just beginning.

The country welcomed a whopping 431,645 new permanent residents in 2022, and Ottawa plans to add as many as 500,000 immigrants to the country on an annual basis.

This unprecedented influx of immigrants promises to be a key economic driver for Metro Vancouver, B.C. and Canada. But researchers and those on the frontlines of immigration caution that data, funding, protections and planning are needed to ensure the rising tide of population growth lifts all boats. 

At S.U.C.C.E.S.S., one of the province’s largest newcomer services non-profit organizations, there are now wait lists – although usually limited to one or two weeks – for almost all of the organization’s programs, which range from language aid and job assistance, to credential recognition, said CEO Queenie Choo.

“We are over-subscribed in all our service locations,” Choo said. “Over the last two-and-a-half years, the international travel restrictions and the visa office slowdowns [due to the pandemic] has meant that many immigrants were able to actually arrive in Canada even though we were in the process of visa approval.

“So the numbers we are seeing now is not just the increased number of newcomers this year, but also the backlog of people we need to do catch-up on from the pandemic. Add on the Afghan and Ukrainian arrivals, and this is very much an unprecedented era – and we hope the resources dedicated to these causes are in alignment with the increasing numbers.”

Vancouver-based immigration lawyer Richard Kurland of the Kurland Tobe law firm said Canada’s large, record-breaking immigration numbers extend beyond the new permanent resident numbers announced by Ottawa. He noted that in recent years, Canada has dramatically altered its immigration policy, tripling the inventory of temporary-status people in Canada while changing rules to make it nearly impossible for people who are not already working or studying in Canada to qualify for permanent residency.

“What this means is that the number of foreign workers and students ballooned from about 1.2 million around six years ago to over 3.2 million today,” Kurland said. “From that inventory, Canada will select about 500,000 people as permanent residents next year.”

For the large pool of temporary residents already living in Canada, the new system is a competition to compile a high-enough human capital score to qualify for permanent residency, said Kurland. The result: Work for immigration lawyers and consultants is booming.

“As people see year after year that they are not being invited to apply, these people will turn to immigration law firms and federally regulated immigration consultants,” Kurland said. “Others in desperation will turn to less scrupulous adventures, such as immigration-motivated marriages.” 

Canada continues to be among the top choices for people looking to emigrate from their origin countries, due partially to the country’s pristine reputation as an advanced country with high quality of life, low crime and a clean environment. 

Ottawa is looking to immigration to kick-start the Canadian economy, grow Canada’s workforce and, as noted by federal Immigration Minister Sean Fraser, to address the country’s labour and demographic changes.

In media reports, Fraser said that if Canada does not address its aging population and labour shortages through immigration, questions about the economic viability of maintaining Canada’s quality of life will begin to emerge years down the line.

Some analysts, however, have expressed concerns about how a large new population will impact housing, health care and costs of living.

On housing, Kurland isn’t as concerned when it comes to permanent residents. He noted that what many critics do not realize is that the new permanent residents being approved already live in Canada. The real pressure, Kurland noted, comes from the higher number of temporary residents who are waiting in Canada to apply for permanent residency.

For Andy Yan, one of B.C.’s leading urban planning experts and the director of Simon Fraser University’s City Program, the surface-level number of new permanent residents moving to B.C. and Canada is less important than what happens to these people once they find themselves living full-time in a new community.

Yan recently compiled a database on B.C. and Canada’s population growth and migration patterns, and the research revealed that Metro Vancouver’s population growth of five per cent between 2000 and 2022  – from about 139,000 people to 2.84 million – was driven largely by new immigrants.

This finding captures the importance of international newcomers to the growth of the region, said Yan, as well as the importance of tracking migration and integration trends after newcomers get settled into their new homes.

“About 80 per cent of immigrants coming to B.C. land in Metro Vancouver,” Yan said. “But what we don’t know is the answer to the question: ‘Do people stay?’ Do people move away or back to their home countries when they can’t find any opportunities here? And those are important questions because you need to then consider the kind of social/economic infrastructure that needs to be in place.

“We know people are now going to cities like Richmond, Surrey, Coquitlam and all the way out to Abbotsford. But do these cities have the infrastructure to incorporate newcomers and increased demand on education? That’s why these numbers are important, and they need to be backed by funding, planning and infrastructure.”

There is also concern from some that the increased number of newcomers – whether temporary or permanent – may lead to exploitation. 

Jonathon Braun, acting executive director of the Migrant Workers Centre in B.C., said there have been recent high-profile cases – including one class-action lawsuit – against immigration consultants who allegedly defrauded clients seeking to stay in Canada.

That, Braun noted, means that his reaction to the news that Canada is getting more newcomers through its doors is admittedly mixed, since the country’s penchant of bringing temporary workers here does not always match the will to protect them.

“The idea of our organization is that we support the principle that people have the right to move,” he said. “Migration is a part of human history, and it’s not a bad thing. The concern comes with our experience helping migrant workers. We see how the rules surrounding the foreign worker program and employment laws negatively affected foreign workers. It leads to a lot of exploitation and abuse.”

And while the federal government has made some improvements to its immigration system – such as creating more open work permits for spouses of temporary workers – the idea of adding more newcomers to Canada while not taking care of the migrant workers who are already here is troubling, Braun said.

“When we have laws that don’t protect workers, it says that we are okay for workers to not have rights. And that’s a pretty harsh reality,” he said. “A lot of them just don’t have access to permanent residency.”

New permanent residents who move to B.C. with the dream of establishing a new home can also face a challenging reality, characterized by high costs, expensive housing, a lack of services and other constraints, said Yan.

“It’s really the difference between promise and delivery,” he said. “This is where you see the role of the federal government, because regulating immigration is largely the role of the feds. But support – the services provided to these populations – is largely falling on the provinces. The question is: Are we getting our fair share of federal supports for these immigrants? 

“It’s a healthy debate to have: How wide should we leave the door open, rather than to open or close the door.”

Choo said that S.U.C.C.E.S.S. is working to stretch its existing sources of support – a combination of federal and provincial funding, and fundraising efforts like the annual Walk with the Dragon and Bridge to Success Gala – to help immigrants and newcomers. But additional funding to help the organization remove its wait lists would be more than welcome, she noted.

A streamlined foreign credential recognition process to speed up trained professionals’ entry into their respective fields of training would also reduce barriers that create backlogs as newcomers move through the Canadian system, Choo added.

S.U.C.C.E.S.S. has added more housing-related services. The non-profit recently partnered with Tikva Housing Society to create 138 new affordable units within Vancouver’s Cambie Gardens development, and another partnership is underway with Rennie Marketing for pilot projects to house Ukrainian arrivals.

“We need to look at different ways to grow our population, and immigration is certainly one of those ways to help advance those mandates,” Choo said. “We live in a country that is multicultural, and it’s important that we get to know each other and support each other.” 

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