Victories and challenges in Canadian immigration
by Jon Malek
Immigration and border security have been on the minds of many in the last few months. The 2016 U.S. election placed in the White House a man whose campaign rested in large part upon ill-informed anti-immigrant rhetoric. This has, in a way, reinforced Canada’s own stance on immigration and refugees, with the federal government coming out on a number of instances reiterating that Canada remains a welcoming nation. Canada’s commitment is currently being tested as refugee claimants are crossing the border with the U.S., fleeing in fear of the President’s anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim rhetoric. Canada’s immigration practices have always been sites of political contention and public scrutiny, and the reality is that Canada’s prosperity has always been tied to positive immigration trends. The 2016 census demonstrated that Manitoba’s population grew faster than the national average since 2011, increasing by 5.8 per cent. However, immigration policy – including temporary migrants – is still a fluid and changing area.
In May 2015, I wrote in protest against the newly implemented federal government policy dubbed “4 & 4,” whereby a migrant worker who had resided in Canada for four years would be forced to leave (i.e. deported) and would be denied re-entry for another four years. The defence of this rested on tired rhetoric about “preserving Canadian jobs,” playing on the argument of the Harper government that migrant workers were abusing Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker program, something that the Conservative administration hyped up and over exaggerated. The obvious problem with this sort of language was that it promoted the idea that immigrants and migrants entering Canada should be automatically treated with suspicion; not only that, but penalized for offences not yet committed, and which were likely never to be committed.
For now, though, migrant worker advocates can take a breath of relief as the Liberal government of Justin Trudeau, which has proven to be far more open minded and welcoming to immigration, has recently repealed this policy. Without a doubt, this is a victory for those who campaigned against the policy and reaffirms the power of grass roots, people power in Canada. The largest force in favour of this appeal was the migrant workers themselves, the migrant activist groups that supported them, the thousands of Canadians that signed petitions, and the organized protests that occurred in over fifteen cities. I like to think that the repealing of this policy shows that the Harper administration made a false assumption about Canadian popular and business sentiment.
The Coalition for Migrant Worker Rights Canada celebrated this announcement, but was quick to point out that much more is needed. As stated on their website, “While this is an important step, we need more than repealing and tinkering. We need a total overhaul of the system which begins with ensuring permanent status on landing for migrant workers now and a regularization program for workers who stayed and became undocumented.” The Coalition goes on to criticize the language of the federal government’s announcement that claimed it sought to expand “pathways to citizenship,” calling this “a euphemism for maintaining unjust temporariness for low-waged and racialized workers.” While this issue is a broader human rights issue, it is also one that affects the Filipino community, as thousands work in Manitoba under the Temporary Foreign Worker program, facilitated in part by a Memorandum of Understanding signed by the Province of Manitoba and the Philippine government in February 2008.
As the Coalition for Migrant Worker Rights asserts, though, this victory in repealing the 4&4 policy should not be a cause for too much revelling as many challenges remain. The fact is that the rhetoric used by Stephen Harper, and much more recently in Britain and the United States, that demonizes immigrants, migrants, and asylum seekers as “queue jumpers,” (former immigration minister Jason Kenney’s favoured term for asylum seekers), stealing Canadian jobs, becoming burdens on the state, or not willing to contribute to the Canadian economy uses stereotypes that are not supported by facts to mobilize public opinion against immigrants, often in a ploy for political clout. And, I should point out the irony that immigrants and migrant workers are sometimes labeled as stealing Canadian jobs and as becoming burdens on the state because they do not want to work.
Challenges to the MPNP
This cliché of immigrants as a burden to the state has recently been expressed in relation the Manitoba Provincial Nominee Program (MPNP). The recent challenges to the program, which has been responsible for much of Manitoba’s growth in the last five years, has received much attention lately. Premier Brian Pallister suggested not only that immigrants were becoming a drain on society, but also they were increasingly not finding jobs in a reasonable amount of time. As NDP interim leader Flor Marcelino stated, though, 94 to 98 percent of MPNP new comers find employment within one year of arrival – a very reasonable amount of time, indeed. In that time, these newcomers are not drains on the state. A requirement for entry is so-called “show money,” proof that an immigrant and their supporting family has the funds to support themselves while they find employment.
In addition to these comments, which many in Manitoba’s immigrant community described as hurtful and disrespectful, the imposition of a new $500 fee on successful MPNP applicants has earned the ire of many. The PC government says this fee, which is in addition to the already burdensome costs of applying to the program, will be used to help clear the backlog of applicants, fund language programs, and help settle refugees. This fee has uncomfortable similarities to the Head Tax that the Canadian government imposed specifically on Chinese immigrants from 1885 to 1923. The fee ended in 1923 when the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923 banned almost all Chinese immigration entirely. To be fair, the two fees are considerably different. The Chinese Head Tax was unapologetically meant to discourage and limit Chinese immigration, because they were deemed undesirables by the Canadian state. This fee was enforced in a period of intense racism and xenophobia in Canadian society and government. The MPNP fee, however, is levied after an applicant has been approved and is claimed to be for immigrant and refugee services. This fee can be understood, I think, in the spirit of fiscal responsibility with which the PC government is operating. All of this is not to defend the fee, and in fact I disagree both with the fee and the spirit behind it.
The whole premise behind the fee, to me, seems to suggest that immigrants are a burden on Manitoba. Certainly, the botched rhetoric used to discuss the MPNP and immigrants has not smoothed over the imposition of the fee, either. I’m willing to accept that the immigration system in Canada and Manitoba needs reforms – both in terms of permanent immigrants and temporary migrants – but loading more fees on those immigrants is not a feasible solution. Immigrants through the MPNP already pay substantial fees to pursue a life in Canada; a substantial fee of $500 on newcomers will only risk their financial stability at a crucial time. However, this isn’t even the real issue as I see it. In fact, Brian Pallister hinted at the real problem in his justification of the fee, as did Flor Marcelino who said, “Even if they are overqualified, they take on whatever job for a start. So very, very few of them are unemployed.” Even if they are overqualified – this is the true problem, and one I will write about more in the future.
In 2003, Harald Bauder of Ryerson University wrote about the system of “brain abuse” in Canadian immigration. We are familiar with “brain drain, whereby countries like the Philippines are losing bright, well educated individuals to other countries, depriving their home countries of their skills because economic prospects are dim. “Brain abuse” acknowledges the other end of that problem – what happens to that talent in Canada? How many of us know nurses, doctors, engineers, or teachers who are not able to practice their talent in Canada due to problems with recognizing credentials? I personally know people who ran hospital wards in the Philippines, but now cannot even get a chance to have their credentials recognized. I know a medical doctor who can, and still does, periodically, practice medicine in the Philippines and the United States, but cannot in Canada due to unrealistic requirements for recognition. This is truly abuse, and all involved suffer. The Philippines is losing its talent; the immigrants are not able to practice their training and are making far less than what they are worth; and Canada is losing the potential that these immigrants can offer to our society.
If Pallister and other like-minded politicians want immigrants to fulfill their potential, then they need to address the real problems. Charging more money won’t solve anything; helping them find jobs and have credentials recognized is what’s needed. What is all the more frustrating is that government and policy makers know about the problem, but still there remains a lack of communication between the federal government, which is responsible for approving immigration applications, and professional associations that are responsible for regulating professions. The MPNP is shooting itself in the foot by allowing brain abuse, and by not facilitating communication between the federal government and professional organizations in Manitoba.
Jon Malek is a PhD candidate in History at Western University, and is a member of the Migration and Ethnic Relations program.