Ottawa to throw open doors to immigrants
Canada to welcome 100,000 more immigrants each year


OTTAWA—In a bid to counteract Canada's declining birthrate and aging population, the federal government is looking at a dramatic boost in immigration — up to 100,000 additional newcomers each year.

The increase, part of a new immigration plan to be unveiled next month, means Canada would open its doors to 320,000 immigrants a year by the time the plan is fully implemented in five years.

Canada accepted 235,000 permanent residents last year, within its target range of 220,000 to 245,000 new residents per year.

The new plan would implement a long-standing Liberal pledge to increase immigration to 1 per cent of population.

It would also reflect the high priority placed on immigration by Prime Minister Paul Martin in a speech earlier this week.

"Canada needs more immigrants, plain and simple, and we need them to succeed," Martin told civil servants. Immigration will be key to countering a low birth rate, an aging population and a growing shortage of skilled workers, he said.

The new policy is also expected to reflect the Prime Minister's emphasis on the need for more skilled immigrants.

"As the numbers increase we also must be more active in recruiting immigrants who meet Canada's evolving needs — needs that are identified in consultation with provinces, communities and those in labour, business and academia."

At the core of the changes is a philosophical shift that will see the immigration department become a worldwide recruiter of newcomers to Canada, instead of simply processing applications.

The new plan, which Immigration Minister Joe Volpe first has to take to cabinet, is expected to be broadly based on these key themes:

Welcoming more immigrants and encouraging more of them to settle outside big cities like Toronto and Vancouver, where they have traditionally settled in the past.

"A lot of people have said there are so many immigrants coming to Canada, how come they're all going to Toronto?" Volpe said. "Regionalization is absolutely crucial."

For example, during a visit to Sault Ste. Marie a week ago, Volpe was told the city was ready to welcome 6,000 new immigrants.

Department officials say the government could dangle the promise of speedy entry for those immigrants willing to move to communities outside of the big centres.

Better matching the skills of immigrants with jobs. "We have a whole inventory of jobs that go unfilled," Volpe said. Sources say this has been an area where the department has traditionally fallen down.

"We've never done a particularly good job of matching skills to the requirements of the Canadian economy," a department official said.

"We probably have 1,000 jobs open right now across the country in the electronic gaming industry. You can't throw these people into the queue because two years from now, when their application finally gets to the top of the pile, the job is gone," he said.

The solution is to become more adept at responding to the changing needs of the labour market, he said.

Making it easier for temporary workers and foreign students — who already know the country and its languages — to remain here. "Not everybody is going to be a PhD in English or French but they have certain skills and they understand things about the country that a brand new person might not," Volpe said.

The new plan is also expected to address the question of getting foreign credentials more speedily recognized in Canada.

The job of drawing up the new plan falls to Volpe. Since April, he's been criss-crossing the country to poll communities and employers about immigration policy.

He said he heard a universal message during his travels.

"Everywhere around the country, I think there's one four-letter (word) and it's `more.' Everybody wants more immigration," Volpe said in an interview.

"It's a huge change and for some it's quite unexpected."

He said smaller communities in particular are crying out for immigrants to help fill critical labour shortages.

"They want the advantages of immigration to be regionalized. Everyone sees immigration as a beneficial issue," he said.
Volpe would not talk specifics.

Spreading the increase out over several years will give the agencies and governments who help settle immigrants, including provinces, time to prepare for the influx.

But that boost, while welcome news to employers, could be a mixed blessing for cities like Toronto, which have been pressing the federal government to pony up more cash to pay for language training and housing to help new immigrants settle.

The GTA traditionally is the destination of about 40 per cent of Canada's immigrants. If that trend continues under the new plan, it would mean an additional 40,000 newcomers a year to the GTA.

Volpe said that in lockstep with the increase, assistance to cities and provinces would be increased to help immigrants integrate. But he also said there would be more efforts made to start the transition while immigrants are still in their native countries, waiting to make the move.

"Why can't it start before they get here?" Volpe said. "Let's put in place a process that allows for the integration process to begin at the moment an application is deemed to be ready."

That could include language training and familiarization about life in Canada, Volpe said.

"There's usually a two- to three-month lag period from the moment they are accepted and they land. The idea is to utilize that period."

Each year in late October, the department releases its immigration target for the following year. But this year, the department will use that annual event to unveil its multi-year plan to ramp up immigration levels.