By Gigi Lockhart
Migrants and refugees are not only integral to Canada’s community identity, they are part of the nation’s economic strategy, Canadian Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen told an audience at UNSW’s Kaldor Centre.
“In a world where countries are closing their doors more than ever to talent, to skills, even to people who are seeking protection, [Canada has] taken the opposite approach and we have increased our numbers and we are saying yes to people who have come to share their skills with us,” he said. “Diversity is a fact, we can’t get away from it, but inclusion is a choice, and we have decided to be inclusive.”
Like Australia, Canada is a country with a long history of immigration and a fast-aging population. And, like Australia’s policymakers, the Canadian government is keen to encourage migrants and refugees to settle outside the capital cities.
In a wide-ranging speech, Minister Hussen said that, while Canada now prides itself on an open refugee policy, the country hasn’t always got it right, and it faces the same political pressures as other industrialised nations. But he said that Canada’s celebrated private sponsorship scheme had proven transformative for the country; building on that success, Canada has launched creative new migration initiatives such as the Atlantic Immigration Pilot program and the Global Skills Strategy.
The Atlantic program targets regional areas, where workers retiring outnumber those joining the workforce, enabling them fast-tracked visa approvals for new migrants who chose to live there. “[The program] really addresses the needs of rural Canada to harness immigration, because a lot of times they lose out to the big cities,” he said, echoing a debate in contemporary Australia, where the government has floated its intention to encourage migrants to settle in regional Australia.
Hussen said the Atlantic program also served a second objective: “I believe that the more rural Canada benefits from immigration, the more support they will have for immigration – and that’s what the Syrian refugee initiative did [in which Trudeau promised to promptly admit 25,000 refugees from the conflict], because the numbers were so big that they were sent over to smaller communities. Some of the most ardent people are demanding more for these smaller communities, because they saw all of the benefits in the schools that were about to be closed that were suddenly thriving with the noises of children through the influx of these newly arrived refugees. And they’re doing very well.”
Likewise, Canada’s Global Skills Strategy had attracted 10,000 highly skilled individuals “who have chosen to lend us their skills and benefit Canadian business and our economy,” Hussen said. “Researchers and innovators are taking a pay-cut to move from other parts of the world, where immigrants and newcomers are less accepted, to come to Canada, because they feel that the environment and the community is more accepting. They are thinking about the future and they are choosing Canada because of that immigration system. So, we view that as an immigration advantage, we view it as a competitive advantage in a world where mobile talent is more mobile than ever before.”
Canada's approach is particularly relevant in the context of recent proposals flagged by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison for states to request number of skilled migrants, whose visas would then be conditional on where they live. The proposals come amid Australia's lowest intake of permanent migrants in a decade.
Minister Hussen also noted that most people who are forced from their homes do not want to start over far away, and the bulk of the displacement burden falls on countries neighbouring conflicts, such as Jordan which is hosting some 1.3 million Syrians. He cited a special trade agreement whereby certain Jordanian textile factories, which hire a minimum percentage of refugees, get preferential market access.
“Now, that changes the mindset, because, first of all, it creates jobs for Jordanians and the refugees. Secondly … if any [Jordanians] viewed refugees as a burden, that changes it, they start to see refugees as an ally in their own development. Because of these refugees and because of their generosity, they are getting market access for their products,” Hussen explained. “And it’s much, much less expensive for Western countries to do that, to help the Jordanians.”
Overall, for both Canada’s society and its economy, Hussen said, “the case for diversity is that diversity is a source of strength.”