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Ibrahim Absiye, a refugee from Somalia, runs an immigrant service program in Toronto. Photos:  Brian Mann
Ibrahim Absiye, a refugee from Somalia, runs an immigrant service program in Toronto. Photos: Brian Mann

Canada puts immigration at the center of its economic policy

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Here in the North Country and across much of Upstate New York, population growth and economic development have been anemic for decades. But just north of the border, Canadian communities like Kingston are working aggressively to attract foreign immigrants willing to bring new energy and new skills.

As part of a partnership with WBEZ public radio in Chicago, Brian Mann has been traveling in Ontario, looking at the different strategies that Canada has used to boost prosperity. Today he reports from the city of Vaughan, just north of Toronto, where immigrants are seen as the key to the future.

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The Welcome Centre in Vaughan, Ontario, is a resource for thousands of newcomers to the city.

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Reported by

Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

It’s just after lunch and Natalia Gotina’s students are filing in, getting ready for the day’s English lesson.  She says people turn up speaking every language imaginable. 

"It’s Russian language, Moldavian, Mandarin…Albanian," she says.

Gotina arrived from Belarus a decade ago. She teaches at one of five new Immigrant Welcome Centre that have opened in neighborhoods and bedroom cities around Toronto.  

It’s all paid for by Canada’s Federal government.   The classes, the daycare for kids, the computer training and job counseling — it's all free for newcomers like Susannah who arrived last August from Albania.

"The course is helping me a lot about my language and I think in my future too it is very helpful for me," she says.

The goal here isn’t just to teach English.  Canada uses its immigration system to identify people like Susannah who already have specific job skills — in healthcare, engineering, computer science — that can be plugged in to the economy.

"I am pharmacist back home and they are helping to find a way for my profession here in Canada."

This is very different from the US, where the vast majority of legal immigration is based on family connections, not on a person’s professional background or training.

"We’ve instituted a managed, point-based immigration system," explains Mario Calla, head of the regional non-profit called COSTI Immigrant Services that runs these welcome centers for the government. 

Canada’s system, he says, actually grades every person who applies for the equivalent of a green card. 

People are given points on everything from health to wealth to education and professional achievement.  If you don’t score high enough, you don’t get in.  

"Canadians understand that while these people coming from other countries may be very different from us, they’re coming with great talents and skills."

Canada accepts about a quarter million legal immigrants a year.  That’s nearly one percent of the country’s total population arriving every twelve months. 

That level of immigration enjoys broad political support, in part because Canada is facing the same

demographic dilemma that now plagues American cities and small towns around the Great Lakes region.

"People aren’t having as many children as they were before.  And the work force is growing older.  We’ve got a burgeoning seniors population."

Jeff Garrah runs the Economic Development Corporation in Kingston, a small city on the shore of Lake Ontario — about three hours east of Vaughan. 

If it weren’t for newcomers, Garrah says, Canadian cities would be hollowing out and shrinking, just like many American cities. 

He helped create a group that works actively to convince immigrants to make their new life in Kingston.

"We have to have a very aggressive immigration policy to replace those jobs, particularly those high skilled jobs," Garrah argues.

No one here thinks Canada’s immigration system is perfect. Especially during the recession, a lot of newcomers – even those with marketable skills — struggled to find work.

And critics like Sayed Hassan with an immigrant advocacy group called “No One Is Illegal” says the emphasis on job skills leaves too many really needy people out in the cold.

"I mean if you look at the number of refugees coming into Canada as a percentage of its population, it’s slightly below that of the United States. And yet Canada says it has the most generous refugee system in the world."

And there has been tension as more and more newcomers arrive from non-European countries. Ibrahim Absiye came from Somalia as a refugee twenty years ago. 

"We came in big numbers and we came with a different look of skin.  We came with a different religion.  So there were some barriers to break through," he recalls.

These days, Absiye runs another immigrant help center called Culturelink.  He says there are flare-ups of racism and cultural misunderstandings.   But he says Canada’s reputation as a truly open and diverse society is no myth.

"I think Canada is known for being one of the most welcoming communities in the world…and especially here in Ontario and especially here in Toronto, the community is welcoming to the newcomers."

These days, half of Toronto’s population is foreign-born – that’s a higher percentage than in New York City or Miami. 

Here in Vaughan, the foreign-born population jumped by more than forty percent over the last decade, making this one of the fastest-growing cities in the Great Lakes region.

Matthew Mendelson, with Canada’s Mowat Center for Policy Innovation, says he thinks these multicultural hubs will drive his country's next economic boom.

"Particularly Toronto has been successful at attracting high quality, talented immigrants from around the world but particularly Asia and emerging economies – creating clusters and concentrations of talented people."

One important footnote to all this is the fact that Canada has developed its immigration system without facing the pressure of a huge wave of illegal immigration like the one that’s been so controversial in the US.

By most estimates, Canada has fewer than 200,000 undocumented workers.

In the last decade — as Canada and US have worked to synchronize border security — officials here have moved more aggressively to track down and deport people who enter the country illegally.

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