Eye for Talent

Why Canada wins at immigration

Illustration by Jeannie Phan
Illustration by Jeannie Phan

Jonathan Tepperman, the Canadian-born managing editor of Foreign Affairs magazine, has spent years travelling the world and studying the policies that have helped some countries succeed while others remain mired in poverty and rancour. In his acclaimed new book, The Fix: How Nations Survive and Thrive in a World in Decline, Tepperman summarizes his findings, telling ten stories of governments overcoming supposedly impossible problems such as inequality, corruption, and Islamic extremism. An adapted version of the book’s second chapter, “Let the Right Ones In: Canada’s Immigration Revolution,” is excerpted below.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, Canada was a strange sort of country—one “built against any common, geographic, historic, or cultural sense,” as Pierre Trudeau once put it. On the one hand, it was physically immense, the world’s second-largest state by land mass. On the other, its population was tiny: less than 18 million in 1960 (or about a tenth of that of the United States at the time).

Those twin facts had long provoked anxiety in Ottawa. In 1966, a report by the Department of Manpower and Immigration (as it was then called) fretted that Canada was “an underpopulated country by most standards of measurement” and urged the government to “fill up our empty spaces as rapidly as possible.” A few years earlier, John Diefenbaker had warned that “Canada must populate or perish.”

Part of the problem was that Canada’s economy was starting to boom; between 1939 and 1962, GDP rocketed from $5.7 billion to $36 billion. That sounds like a good thing, and it was—but it also meant that, unless Canada got more workers, the good times would come to an end. And attracting newcomers was proving difficult, since the US was booming at the same time and had a much greater appetite for skilled labour.

So Ottawa desperately needed to produce more Canadians. The question was how.

For many years, the answer had been clear. Back in 1947, when Mackenzie King infamously justified the “white Canada” policy in a speech to Parliament, he wasn’t announcing a new direction, but rather defending what had been Ottawa’s practice for decades. From Confederation onward, the Canadian government had followed an explicitly discriminatory immigration policy. To ensure that Canada was settled by the right (read: lily-white) sort of people, Ottawa distinguished between three types of foreigners: “preferred,” “non-preferred,” and “excluded.” The first group came from the British Isles or northern Europe and was actively recruited. The second hailed from southern or eastern Europe and was admitted only reluctantly, during particularly intense manpower shortages. The third comprised everybody else. And, as the name suggests, they were effectively banned. (As was the case in the western US in the 1800s and early 1900s, Asian immigrants were particularly feared and detested.)

Such racism was rationalized through all kinds of pseudo-scientific studies. As academic Elspeth Cameron notes, Canadian “doctors, journalists, philosophers, politicians, and poets alike” all argued during this period that “Canada’s northern environment was only suited to…white northern races.” And these ideas were widespread. In 1954, the Toronto Star editorial board wrote that racial discrimination was “an established (and most would say sensible) feature of our immigration policy.”

But World War II, the Holocaust, decolonization, and Canada’s enthusiastic participation in the rise of the global human-rights movement made such discriminatory policies awkward to sustain. An internal government working paper from 1957 recommended “revising our immigration legislation so as to avoid the charge of racial discrimination” while quietly continuing to limit non-white immigration so as “to prevent aggravation of the Asiatic minority problem.”

But there was a flaw in that plan: in the early 1960s, just when Canada’s labour shortage was growing most acute, Europe largely stopped exporting emigrants as the Continent finally rebounded from the wreckage of World War II. Skilled workers became particularly hard to find. And so in 1962, more out of necessity than principle, Canada abandoned ethnicity as a formal basis for evaluating immigrants—becoming the first country in the world to do so. In a move that would prove critical to the success of Canadian immigration policy in the decades to come, Ottawa began judging most applicants on the basis of educational, professional, and technical qualifications. As Ellen Fairclough, then Canada’s immigration minister, explained at the time, “any suitably qualified person, from any part of the world” would henceforth be eligible for entry. The government would look solely at “his own merit, without regard to his race, colour, [or] national origin.”

That sounded good, but as Queen’s University sociologist Richard J. F. Day has revealed, Fairclough “was simply not telling the whole truth,” and the new colour-blind approach was not nearly as impartial as claimed. Over the next five years, Ottawa maintained strict limits on the number of non-European immigrants who could be sponsored by relatives already in Canada, while continuing to actively recruit newcomers from the US, the United Kingdom, and northern Europe.

But the persistence of such preferences meant that the new policy didn’t achieve either of its goals: attracting enough new workers and protecting the government from domestic and international condemnation. So five years later, Prime Minister Lester Pearson’s Liberal government finally dropped all remaining ethnic criteria from Canada’s immigration system. In its place, Pearson adopted an innovative new policy, the basic contours of which remain in place today. It required that all independent applicants for residency be assessed solely on the basis of nine race-neutral criteria, including education, age, fluency in English or French, and job skills. Nothing else would matter.

The effects were dramatic. Between 1946 and 1953, 96 percent of immigrants to Canada had come from Europe. Between 1968 and 1988, that figure dropped to 38 percent. By 1977, those from Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America, and Africa had begun to constitute more than half of all newcomers admitted each year.

Because immigrants were now being selected primarily on the basis of what they could contribute to the Canadian economy—instead of what they looked like or whether they already had family in the country—the new system soon began producing impressive material dividends that benefited everyone. (A critical difference between Canada and the US is that the latter still uses family reunification as its primary entrance criterion. This well-intentioned but irrational approach lets an arbitrary factor—whether or not an applicant’s relatives had the cunning or dumb luck to get into the country in the first place—shape the nation’s immigrant population.) Meanwhile, generous government support for multiculturalism and policies that encouraged the integration of newcomers began persuading native-born Canadians that broadening the nation’s ethnic makeup would make the country more Canadian, not less.

In the years since Pierre Trudeau left office, successive governments have tinkered with immigration and multiculturalism, but almost invariably in ways that have enhanced their impact. In recent years, for example, Ottawa has put greater stress on formal education and made it easier for businesspeople likely to create new jobs to settle in Canada. In 2013, the federal government created a start-up visa program, which aims to attract entrepreneurs by granting them immediate permanent residency if they can secure venture capital from Canadian investors. To enhance local buy-in (especially in Quebec), the federal government has given provinces greater input into the selection process so they can ensure that newcomers meet their particular economic needs.

Taken together, these policies help explain what international scholars call “the Canadian exception”—the fact that Canada has managed to avoid the ugly anti-immigrant backlash that has rocked virtually every other Western and industrialized state in recent years. The policies help explain why the Migrant Integration Policy Index, a global survey, ranks Canada’s immigration system as among the best on the planet. And they explain why Canadians themselves would probably rank it even higher. Indeed, even as immigration levels have steadily risen over the last two decades, support for generous immigration policies has only gone up.

And no wonder: Ottawa’s stress on economic factors—65 percent of newcomers to Canada in 2015 were admitted on the basis of such criteria—has generated one of the world’s most successful immigrant populations. Canada’s foreign-born citizenry is better educated than that of any other nation: about half of new Canadians enter the country with college degrees, compared with 27 percent in the United States. Second-generation Canadians are more likely to attend university than are their peers with native-born parents. While immigrants represent about 21 percent of Canada’s population, they occupy 35 percent of all university research chairs. And economic-class migrants consume less in welfare spending than do native-born Canadians.

Meanwhile, when a polling firm asked Canadians in 1985 what made them proudest of their country, multiculturalism came in tenth. By 2006, it had climbed to second place. In a similar survey, Canadians listed multiculturalism ahead of hockey, bilingualism, and the Queen. Polls show that, all told, 85 percent of Canadians now see multiculturalism as important to their national identity.

As University of Toronto sociologist Jeffrey Reitz has pointed out, pluralism has become one of the elements—along with, for example, nationalized health care, strict gun control, and gay rights—that help Canadians feel proud of who they are (and, perhaps more important, who they are not). That explains why the most patriotic Canadians also tend to be the most pro-immigration—unlike in the US, where the opposite is true. Multiculturalism even sells beer: in the summer of 2015, Molson ran a TV commercial in which a computerized fridge, placed on a sidewalk, would unlock and dispense free suds once passersby said the magic words—“I am Canadian”—in six foreign languages.

Scholars believe a few other factors have probably also contributed to Canada’s extraordinary openness. One is that, unlike the US, Germany, Japan, and many other industrialized countries, Canada has never had sizable temporary-worker programs. (Indeed, Canada has the highest naturalization rate in the world, with 85 percent of eligible permanent residents becoming citizens.) That’s important, because citizens are more likely than guests to invest in their new homeland and be welcomed in return. (Stephen Harper’s government experimented with guest-worker programs, but the impact on overall migration numbers was limited.)

It’s probably even more significant that Canada has never had much of a problem with illegal immigration. Thanks to its geographic isolation—Canada is sheltered by oceans to its east and west, a vast tundra to its north, and the American border to its south—illegal migration, in the words of Berkeley sociologist Irene Bloemraad, only “laps gently onto Canadian shores; it does not come in large waves.” Whereas almost a third of the current foreign-born population in the US is undocumented, the figure in Canada is thought to be somewhere between 3 percent and 6 percent.

While these factors likely play a role in explaining the remarkable openness of Canadians, however, they hardly tell the whole story. The UK is also isolated geographically and has about the same percentage of undocumented workers. Yet polls show that double the number of Brits—as compared with their former colonial subjects in Canada—are hostile to immigration.

As a consequence, immigration in Canada has long been something of a bipartisan cause. It was a Conservative prime minister, Diefenbaker, who first moved the country toward a colour-blind system. And it was another Conservative—Brian Mulroney—who enshrined Trudeau’s multiculturalism policy in law in 1988 and who, in a dramatic break with tradition, maintained high immigration levels despite a sharp recession in the early 1990s.

Both Diefenbaker and Mulroney were centrists, however. Stephen Harper, by contrast, was closer in style to an American Republican. He’d made a name for himself in the short-lived Reform Party, a populist protest movement that was skeptical of both multiculturalism and immigration. Reform’s 1988 platform declared that immigration should not be “designed to radically or suddenly alter the ethnic makeup of Canada, as it increasingly seems to be.” And a 1991 revision to the party’s manifesto called for opposition to “the current concept of multiculturalism and hyphenated Canadianism” while proposing to abolish the Department of Multiculturalism altogether.

Yet even Harper was generally careful not to upset the basic structure of Canada’s immigration system. And although he was justly criticized in 2015 for trying to curry favour with nationalists by banning Muslim women from wearing the niqab during citizenship ceremonies (a ban the courts promptly overruled), his government also took many surprisingly progressive steps on both immigration and multiculturalism. These included reducing immigration fees, organizing commemoration days for the Armenian and Ukrainian genocides, and creating the Community Historical Recognition Program, which was given a $13.5 million budget to memorialize the past struggles of the country’s immigrant communities. In 2006, Harper even apologized to victims of the notorious “head tax,” which the Canadian government had used between 1885 and 1923 to discourage Chinese immigration.

There’s good reason to believe that these moves stemmed more from cold political calculations than from some Damascene conversion. It turns out that a few years before Harper was first elected, Jason Kenney, who would become his minister for immigration and multiculturalism, had quietly convinced his boss that if the Conservatives ever hoped to achieve majority status, they would need to boost their popularity among immigrants. But that wouldn’t be hard, Kenney argued, since most newcomers hail from socially traditional cultures—making them natural Conservative voters. Harper bought the argument, and Kenney spent the years between 2006 and 2011 endlessly visiting mosques, Sikh temples, and immigrant centres (sometimes hitting twenty-five venues in a single day), where he’d greet crowds in Punjabi or Mandarin. He even organized “friendship days,” during which ethnic leaders could visit Parliament Hill and meet with government ministers.

These efforts paid off handsomely. In the 2011 federal election, the Conservatives fielded more minority candidates than the Liberals or the NDP did. They ran ads in a host of foreign languages. And when the ballots were counted, the Conservatives had outpolled Trudeau’s old party among foreign-born Canadians for the first time ever—a historic breakthrough.

Was it a cynical ploy? Maybe. But it doesn’t really matter. The results are what count. And they have been spectacular. Enlightened immigration policies have turned what was once a small, closed, ethnically homogeneous state into a vibrant global powerhouse and one of the world’s most open and successful multicultural societies. That’s an accomplishment that politicians everywhere, especially in the US, would be wise to study carefully.

This appeared in the November 2016 issue.

Jonathan Tepperman
Jonathan Tepperman is the managing editor of Foreign Affairs.
Jeannie Phan
Jeannie Phan (jeanniephan.com) draws for Quill & Quire and the New York Times.