HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA - Officials and experts plotting Canada’s economic recovery from the global pandemic are looking to current and future immigrants as a big part of the solution.
That conclusion is perhaps inevitable, given the oversized role that immigrants already play in the country’s highly pluralistic society.
Canada has one of the highest immigration rates of any country, with first-generation residents accounting for 21.9% of the population, according to the latest census in 2016. Asia is the largest source of immigrants, followed by Africa and then Europe. Canada also hosts more than half a million foreign students.
The flood of new arrivals – which stood at more than 300,000 per year before the pandemic – has been slowed by tough new health-related travel restrictions. But as long-awaited vaccines are finally becoming available to more residents, analysts look forward to a reopening of the immigration doors.
Harald Bauder, an immigration expert with Ryerson University in Toronto, told VOA he believes immigration is needed now more than ever.
“Immigration is really part of the solution of jump-starting the economy again as part of the recovery strategy,” he said. “How can we catch up from the year that we lost? I have the impression that it will not be a bad year coming up to be a prospective immigrant to Canada.”
Bauder added: “We’re getting signals [from the federal government] that immigration will be part of the solution when this is over.”
The rationale behind Canada’s encouragement of immigration is laid out on a government website, which says, “Immigrants contribute to our economy, not only by filling gaps in our labor force and paying taxes, but also by spending money on goods, housing and transportation.”
Immigration also helps offset demographic changes. In 2019, the fertility rate in Canada was the lowest ever recorded.
Nevertheless, the past year has been a tough one for immigrants in Canada, many of whom have lost jobs because of the pandemic, even as others have played key roles in maintaining public health.
“Immigrants made huge contributions to the pandemic economy through their work as essential and frontline workers and will continue to help lead Canada through our economic recovery,” said Jennifer Watts, CEO of the Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia.
"At the same time, many immigrants were negatively impacted by the pandemic, especially those working in sectors hit hardest by the pandemic, like hospitality and retail.”
Jagmeet Singh, leader of Canada’s opposition New Democratic Party, insists the nation’s economic recovery “must not fall on the backs of workers and families.”
“This pandemic hit people across Canada hard,” Singh said in a statement to VOA. “It has affected everyone, including newcomers to Canada and international students.”
Dr. Idil Atak, a refugee expert with Ryerson University, said the pandemic has thrown up other obstacles for newcomers, including asylum-seekers who have been unable to secure permission to work legally while awaiting rulings on their applications for refugee status.
“In terms of employment, what I noticed is that currently because of the pandemic, there are issues of processing work permits for asylum-seekers,” Atak said in an interview. “Those asylum-seekers who are in Canada who are not refugees yet, they normally do have a right to work, but for that they need a permit.
“What I’ve seen in my research is that the timelines for processing the work permits are extremely long. I have spoken with some refugee lawyers who have clients who are in Canada for two years now but do not have work permits due to the pandemic delays.”
Atak also expressed concern about the impact of Canada’s travel restrictions on would-be refugees.
“One of the things the Canadian government can do is declare that refugees coming to Canada are part of essential travel,” Atak said. “Of course, there should be security checks and health screening … but this is perfectly feasible to also offer protection to asylum-seekers in Canada.“
Despite Canada’s reputation as a diverse and inclusive society, many newcomers do find themselves facing anti-immigrant sentiment.
Noah Khan is a master's degree student in education at York University in Toronto. His research has looked at anti-Asian hate speech online during the pandemic, which he has presented at graduate student conferences.
A 'mask' for racism
Khan told VOA his research was inspired by his own experiences, including an anonymous email saying, “I’ll be watching you at the [student group] meeting and from now on, sandy.” Khan said he understood “sandy” as “a racial slur for Middle Eastern people.”
“The pandemic has given racism a mask I didn’t even know it could wear,” Khan said.
“It is clear in the research that anti-Asian racism has risen, spread in new ways, affected Asian mental health, and indicated further decline in Asian mental health based on the way things are going.”