Immigration: a miracle cure?

Although immigration can’t fix our national budget woes, it does contribute to the economy in several important ways.

As you read this, Canada has begun to welcome thousands of refugees. The government’s plan to accept as many as 25,000 displaced Syrians has many people talking. Some doubt the country’s ability to integrate so many people. Others worry about Canada’s security, especially in light of the deadly November 2015 Paris attacks.

But beyond these concerns, is immigration good or bad for the Canadian economy?

First, it is time to dispel the misguided belief that increasing the number of workers — and taxpayers — through immigration will magically fix our budget woes. In Le remède imaginaire, an insightful book published in Quebec in 2011, the authors claim that immigration can only marginally mitigate the effects of an aging population, and that the problems new Canadians face in entering the job market prevent them from contributing to government revenues. What’s more, taking in tens of thousands more immigrants (through higher immigration quotas) will only make a small dent in the anticipated labour shortage in industries across the country.

In short, immigration is not a miracle cure. That being said, it still contributes significantly to the economy in different ways.

For instance, in Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them, author Philippe Legrain, a former correspondent for The Economist, contends that culturally diverse communities — think New York City or London — are more productive because they have access to a greater pool of goods, skills and ideas.

This mix of ethnicities, cultures and perspectives is conducive to greater problem-solving by bringing together different approaches, thereby fostering creativity and innovation. And since innovation is the basis of productivity and economic growth, it ultimately has a real effect on a country’s standard of living.

Take the high-tech sector, for example. According to Richard Florida, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and the author of The Rise of the Creative Class, having a socially and culturally diverse population, with a large immigrant as well as artistic and bohemian communities, is often a predictor of the success of a city’s high-tech industry. Florida supports his theory, which has its detractors, by pointing out that eight out of the 10 largest cities with the highest concentration of immigrants are among the top tech centres in the US.

Lastly, consumers also benefit from immigration. Just think of the vast array of goods, including culinary products, brought in by newcomers who started their own business when they arrived in Canada. And artists, including writers, comedians and filmmakers, from faraway places enrich the assortment of books, shows and films we enjoy.

Canada has its fair share of immigrant success stories. The new defence minister, Harjit Sajjan, was born in India and immigrated to this country with his family when he was five. And millionaire businesswoman Arlene Dickinson, who appeared on Dragons’ Den for the past eight years, is a native South African. She and her family moved to Edmonton in 1959 with only $50 to their names. This doesn’t include all the foreign-born athletes who have enjoyed fabulous careers here. The list goes on.

Like many, I have a nationalist reflex. I am concerned about the cultural identity and security issues that invariably go hand in hand with a massive influx of immigrants. But missing out on what newcomers can contribute to society, especially to the economy, would be a mistake.

About the Author

David Descôteaux


David Descôteaux is a Montreal-based business columnist.

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