“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” This 1849 phrase, originating in French, one of Canada’s two official languages, expresses the sentiment that, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Many have observed that the Coronavirus pandemic has thrust the world, and with it, Canada, into an unprecedented difficult situation, making for an unprecedented present future.
To be sure, there is considerable truth in the foregoing conclusion. But, at the same time, we can also situate the current situation and solutions in a broader, historical context, and observe that Canada has grappled with varied and great challenges (and opportunities) before, and emerged successfully. The Canadian immigration system is a case in point.
Canada has coped before with times of worldwide convulsions that dramatically reduced its ability to accept newcomers. The First World War saw immigration to Canada drop precipitously; in 1915, the intake was only 34,000 people (compared to over 400,000 just two years before).
Levels picked up considerably in the “Roaring Twenties” but again dropped sharply with the advent of the Great Depression, dipping still further with World War II. So the drop in immigration to Canada resulting from the Coronavirus is far from unheralded in Canada’s history.
Canada has also seen great waves of immigration, particularly as part of a response to, and recovery from, challenges. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants poured into the country—many to the west—in the decade-or so following the establishment of Saskatchewan and Alberta as provinces. Unlike many countries in Europe, which arguably had too many people and not enough land—Canada had the opposite problem.
After the calamity of the Second World War, Canada, unlike many other nations, had emerged strong and stable. But it was sorely lacking in the labour force and skills necessary for the great post-War economy and recovery taking place. Between 1946 and 1953, over 750,000 souls found a home in Canada.
Considering that the total population of Canada in 1946 was less than 13 million, the size of this immigration and smoothness of its absorption are nothing short of remarkable. What followed was a considerable increase in Canada’s economic output, standard of living and presence on the world stage.
Where are we now? Canada is in the middle of a global war, not against a military enemy but against a terrible virus. We have suffered the loss of thousands, disruption and contraction of our economy, and a decline further in our already low birth rate.
Again, however, Canada has remained robust and secure. While, like any country, Canada has challenges, it remains a beacon of peace and stability. Unlike the United States, it has never known a civil war. Protests over the past year or so have generally been very peaceful and safe, again markedly different from the situation in the USA.
It is not too soon to talk about economic and societal recovery. As it has in the past, immigration will play a key role.
The government has announced a goal of settling over 1,200,000 new permanent residents in Canada from now until 2021-2023. In considerable measure, economic and population needs are the motivation for this ambitious plan. Marco Menidicino, the incumbent Immigration Minister, expressed it well in announcing these targets:
“Immigration is essential … to our short-term economic recovery and our long-term economic growth … newcomers create jobs not just by giving our businesses the skills they need to thrive, but also by starting businesses themselves.”
Canada has long been a place of refuge for those who are fleeing persecution in their countries of origin. In addition to the 1947-1953 contingent, Canada welcomed thousands of Hungarians in 1956-7, and Vietnamese “boat people” in the late 1970s, and Syrians in the 2010s.
This trend continues. Most recently, Canada has announced special measures to ease the immigration and retention of people from Hong Kong, in the wake of increasingly repressive measures there.
Canada is even redoubling in its quest to settle more sparsely populated areas and develop its agricultural potential. The Rural and Northern Immigration Pilot allows smaller and more isolated communities in Canada to nominate immigrants to work and settle in these places. The Agri-Food Immigration pilot, meanwhile, facilitates the arrival of people to work as farmers, ranchers, and other occupations in agricultural or food production.
Of course, many things have changed—and for the better. Paper-based applications with long, drawn-out processes, are making way for digital and much faster processing.
A system of national and race-based preferences for economic immigration has made way for an objective, merit-based point system.
The provinces and territories have taken a lead in developing innovative streams to attract the best and brightest. Programs for business people and entrepreneurs, and for people who have studied in Canada, are particularly noteworthy developments.
So—our economic and immigration challenges and responses. Unique? Indeed. Entirely novel or unprecedented? Far from it.
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