Canada, along with Australia, takes in more immigrants per capita than any other Western country. In 1990, Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government began to take in about 250,000 immigrants each year, regardless of economic conditions. This policy was continued by his successors, both Liberals and Conservatives. According to Statistics Canada, in 2011 Canada had a total of about 6,775,800 foreign-born individuals who arrived as immigrants. They represented 20.6% of the total population. Among the G8 countries, Canada had the highest proportion of foreign-born population (20.6%), well above the shares in Germany (13.0% in 2010) and the United States (12.9% in 2010). This dramatic, relentless increase in immigrants has had major impacts on our cities, on our society, and on our environment.
But try finding a good discussion about immigration. An actual discussion that is, where people assess immigration policies from different perspectives. The vast majority of media coverage treats our current policy of “mass immigration” as morally unassailable or as something we just have to accept, like the Earth orbiting the sun. No national leader has ever questioned the policy; if anything, they endorse an increase in levels of immigration. The Green Party of Canada criticizes current immigration policies as being too restrictive; they object to the current “culture of fear and discrimination” (sic) against immigrants, calling for a more open policy in which anyone who likes to come to Canada is accepted. Its leader, Elizabeth May, says the Alberta Tar Sands are a much more serious problem and has previously said that immigration produces economic benefits and promotes diversity.
Let’s crunch a few numbers. While our intake of immigrants and refugees has been a bit less than 1% of the population (now 33 million), that figure is often cited as a target. In fact, some prominent media personalities and politicians are proposing to immediately increase our intake to 330,000 a year. An intake of 1% of the population leads to a doubling time of 70 years. That means that Canada’s population would be about 66 million in 2078 and 132 million in 2148. How would the infrastructure of our cities cope with such a population and what would be the environmental impact?
In our free and open society that prides itself on free speech, one shouldn’t ask such questions. In his 2004-2005 annual report (released November 2005) and at a news conference relating to it, Ontario commissioner for the environment Gord Miller addressed the impact of 4 or 5 million more people in southern Ontario a few decades hence.
This is a vast number of people settling in an already stressed landscape. Will the resulting demands for water, sewer systems and roads leave our natural heritage areas intact? Will there be enough natural lands left over to support biodiversity?
Miller was immediately accused of being anti-immigrant. He was asked by reporters whether he was calling for a curtailment of immigration. When the answer was no, he was asked whether he was saying that immigrants should move to northern Ontario (no), whether the era of the single family home is over and whether immigrants shouldn’t dream of having their own house (no). Though he’d said earlier that it wasn’t his job to dictate where people should go, after some hounding he told one reporter that immigrants could move to northern Ontario as a solution to the Greater Toronto Area’s overcrowding. This clip was played multiple times on all local news channels. The CBC aired a response by city councilor Maria Augimenti calling for Miller’s resignation. Miller said:
If people actually read the report, [they’ll find that] the only thing in it about immigration is that it’s another element of population growth and that it’s under federal control. That’s it.
The character lynching endured by Miller for daring to address the issue of rampant population growth in southern Ontario is revealing of the state of public discourse (if we can dignify it with that name) on immigration in Canada. First, his accusers felt no obligation to offer a single fact-based refutation to the concerns he expressed. Second, he himself did not dare to suggest a reduction in immigration, although that would have been totally reasonable based on the environmental impacts of population growth described in his report. Third, if people from northern Ontario are leaving for economic reasons, does it make sense to send immigrants there? And fourth, if high population density has already caused extensive environmental damage in southern Ontario, is it a good idea to go down that route in northern Ontario which, based on climate and agricultural potential, is less able to support a large population?
The subject of immigration to Canada is addressed from an almost completely ideological and emotional perspective with no serious analysis of the real benefits versus costs to Canadians. It is based on the paradigm of perpetual economic growth and all tied up with our official embrace of multiculturalism and diversity as well as our feelings of guilt for real and perceived wrongs toward immigrants in the past. The academic left and the fake “environmentalist” Green Party, together with the pro-growth corporate right, are in complete agreement about keeping Canada open forever to millions and millions of immigrants.
The silence of environmental organizations on the relationship between population growth in Canada and greenhouse gas production and other environmental effects has been deafening. In their mail-out literature soliciting donations, environmental organizations either completely ignore population growth as the driver of urban sprawl, habitat loss, species extinction, water shortages, gridlock, and other problems they are allegedly concerned with, or treat is as something inevitable. I have never received a letter from any organization questioning the government policy of relentlessly promoting the growth of Canada’s population through immigration. Evidence for this cognitive dissonance is provided by the fact that environmental organizations nominated Mulroney as Canada’s greenest prime minister for his efforts to reduce acid rain and greenhouse gases, and ignored the fact that he initiated the “tap wide open” immigration policy that has been pursued to this day and has put the rate of Canada’s population growth on the fast track.
Because we live in what I call an age of hysteria, I feel compelled to emphasize that the aim of this article is to analyze Canada’s policies on immigration. It doesn’t mean that I am anti-immigrant, that I want to entirely shut the door on immigrants and refugees, or that I think people from other cultures and ethnic backgrounds are less worthy as human beings. I am saying that Canada has for about two decades been pursuing a policy of increasing its own population by something approaching 1% each year through immigration, that this policy is having a major impact on Canada’s environment, economy, and society and that it should be subjected to public scrutiny and discussion. Boosterism, emotional appeal, human interest stories, and unsupported statements about our need for immigrants should not be allowed to sideline a factual analysis on the impact of continuous very high levels of immigration on Canada. What I propose to do with this analysis is to
- list the principal arguments used to justify Canada’s current immigration policies, and
- examine how those arguments hold up to scrutiny.
Arguments used to justify Canada’s immigration policy
The arguments used to justify Canada’s immigration policy are ultimately based on growth — the sacred doctrine of our economic system. Like all sacred doctrines, the paradigm of perpetual growth which has guided western economies for a few centuries is not receptive to challenges based on facts. So when in 1972 a document was published challenging the idea that there can be infinite growth on a finite planet, it was met with resistance, and ultimately sidelined. The document, commissioned by the Club of Rome, was called “The Limits to Growth“. Using computers (a novelty at the time), Limits to Growth (LTG) examined the evolution of the whole world’s economy using a mathematical model that kept track of a large number of variables and their interactions as the system changed over time. Based on a number of scenarios with different assumptions, LTG’s authors concluded that, unless specific measures were taken, the world’s economies would collapse within 100 years (i.e, by 2072). About 10 million copies of LTG in 30 languages were sold. Despite creating a big stir, LTG’s message was ultimately ignored. According to an article by Bardi (2008), the Italian economist Giorgio Nebbia identified four primary sources of resistance: those who thought that the message threatened the growth of their businesses and industries; professional economists who saw LTG as a threat to their dominance in advising on economic matters; the Roman Catholic church; and the political left in the Western world, who saw LTG as a scam of the ruling class. The message of LTG was distorted and ridiculed. Conveniently for LTG’s distracters, the oil crisis of the early 1970s, which helped get LTG’s message across when it was first published, seemed to be over by 1980.
The denial of the concept of limits is reflected in the term “sustainable growth”, a mutation of “sustainable development”. One even hears the argument that the environment must be protected so that economic growth can continue. And one way to promote economic growth is with population growth. Since Canadian women are falling down on the job, producing on average only 1.5 babies, we are told that we have to turn to immigration.
The economic arguments for immigration are repeated often and emphatically and totally without analysis. They seem to be meant to scare us into acquiescence. How can we question Canada’s immigration policies when our country is facing a looming labour shortage (the alliteration itself has a fine ominous ring to it). We were warned that by 2011, ALL (!!) labour force growth in Canada will be due to immigration. But what has happened instead is that Canadian citizens were being replaced with foreign workers! Nobody explains why it is essential for the Canadian labour force to keep growing — it seems to be taken as a given that it will be a disaster if it doesn’t. Another favourite bugaboo is Canada’s aging population — soon there will too many old people supported by too few working people. The buzz word here is the dependency ratio, the number of people not working (including children and retirees) over the number of people in the workforce.
Assessment of the arguments used to justify Canada’s immigration policy
The widespread perception that there would be no population growth in Canada without immigration is false. Women of the baby boomer generation have small families, but they constitute such a large cohort that population growth in Canada would continue until 2030 in the total absence of immigration. Of course, the rate of growth would be much lower. And that’s not good enough for developers, bankers who like mortgages, and others who benefit from growth.
No one says specifically that more people would benefit the environment. When our alleged need for immigrants is being promoted, the arguments given are always economic ones or fuzzy ones, like promoting diversity. The economic arguments implicitly assume that the economy is separate from the environment. In fact, as pointed out by economist Herman Daly, it is a “wholly owned subsidiary of the environment”.
But if we go along, for the moment, with the fiction that we can “save the environment” in the face of continuing population and economic growth, how do the economic arguments stack up on their own merits?
I think that nobody would deny that the Fraser Institute, based in Vancouver, British Columbia, is focused on the economy. It may therefore come as a surprise that some of the best arguments demolishing the reasons usually offered to justify Canada’s very high intake of immigrants have come from the Fraser Institute. Fraser Institute Fellow Martin Collacott has written a number of papers on Canada’s immigration policy, including Canada’s Immigration Policy: The Need for Major Reform (2002) and Is There Really a Looming Labour Shortage in Canada and, If There Is, Can Increased Immigration Fill the Gap? (2003).1 The following are some of the relevant pieces of information assembled by Collacott in his papers:
- a 1991 study by the Economics Council of Canada found that in the past century, the fastest growth in real per capita income occurred a times when net migration was zero or even negative;
- a 1989 report issued by Health and Welfare Canada called Charting Canada’s Future noted that, according to the OECD, there was no correlation whatsoever between population growth and economic growth in its 22-member community;
- a 2000 United Nations study concluded that immigration can only serve as a tool to arrest the aging of the population if carried out at levels that are unacceptably high and ever-increasing;
- Statistics Canada released 2001 census data in July of 2002 showing that the population was aging and that immigration, even at very high levels, would have little impact on the average age of the population;
- a 2002 survey by the Canadian Labour and Business Centre found that only a very small percentage of managers and labour leaders in the public and private sectors regard the hiring of foreign-trained workers as very important in resolving the problem of a specific shortage of skills from time to time, instead they looked overwhelmingly to solutions involving the existing workforce, such as upgrading the skills of current employees, hiring young labour market entrants, and phasing in retirement policies.
Things have not changed since the above studies were published. According to Statistics Canada’s analysis of the 2006 census, the median earnings of Canadians (in inflation-adjusted 2005 dollars) have increased by 0.1% since 1980. Not only that, but the earnings of the poorest fifth fell dramatically in that time, by 20.6%, while the top 20% of earners saw their incomes rise by 16.4%.
Economist Herb Grubel of Simon Fraser University and a Fraser Institute fellow calculated, among other things, that
- the costs in services and benefits, in the year 2002 alone, incurred by the 2.5 million immigrants who arrived between 1990 and 2002 exceeded the taxes they paid by $18.3 billion;
- the average immigrant since 1985 has imposed an annual fiscal burden on Canadian taxpayers of $6000, for a total of $25-billion annually for all immigrants;
- eighty percent of the immigrants coming to Canada are not selected because of their skills and education;
- the native working class with low skills and a poor education has been negatively effected in the form of stagnant wages and unemployment due to cheap immigrant labor.
The finding that population growth through immigration does not translate into economic benefits for the native working classes was made in a recent study in the case of Britain.
One question that we should be asking is: Is all this growth really improving the lives of Canadians?
The economic arguments used to justify Canada’s immigration policy are contradicted by every major study and by census data. A large percentage of immigrants from recent decades have not succeeded economically. Only 20% of immigrants are selected on the basis of their skills (most are family class and the definition of family is very extensive indeed). Nevertheless, by seeking to attract the most educated people from developing countries, we deprive those countries of the people that could best promote development and in whom they may have invested many resources (eg., by subsidizing their education). Canada’s immigration policy has an adverse impact on the environment, not only from the paving over of wildland and farmland in Canada but from the net increase in global greenhouse gas production caused by moving people to Canada, because in Canada, their greenhouse gas production will almost always increase.
So far, immigration has never been a major issue in Canada. Despite the evident environmental impact of Canada’s immigration policy, the lack of economic success of many newcomers, and the appearance of what might be called an economic underclass, Canadians have not yet begun to ask serious questions of their politicians nor to demand a more intelligent and objective coverage from their media. It is time they woke up.