Canada's immigration headache

Peter Kammerer says Canada's struggle to find the right mix and pace of immigration is all too common in a globalised world

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 February, 2014, 12:00pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 February, 2014, 1:31am

As an ethnic minority in a city that was not of my birth, I'm only too aware of the need to fit in. But learning about culture and coming to terms with a new language and different way of life take time. Even then, if you're financially better off than those around you or are more conservative in your beliefs, the integration will take longer. I suspect it's a lack of understanding that's in large part behind opposition to wealthy mainland Chinese being given residency in other countries.

Canada is not a place you'd expect such criticism. Its people are exceptionally liberal-minded and are proud of their country's multicultural diversity. No nation takes in as many refugees and few can claim a society that is as racially, religiously and socially tolerant. I was surprised that a migrant investment scheme that had been attracting Chinese millionaires had been shut down over concern that passports were being given out too freely.

To gain residency, the mainlanders had only to prove they had at least C$1.6 million (HK$11.3 million) and were willing to loan the government C$800,000 interest-free for five years. Finance minister Jim Flaherty explained in scrapping the scheme last week that the terms for eventually gaining a passport were more generous than those required by other governments. But there was more to it than that: residents of Vancouver, where the majority of the newcomers were settling, said the migrants were not making enough effort to fit in.

I've heard that before, from my mother towards foreign migrants to her small, inland Australian city, and it's a commonly voiced complaint in less racially tolerant parts of the world. It's a fact in Hong Kong, where there are "gweilo enclaves" when it comes to where to live and go for entertainment. It can apply as much to race as nationality.

For Vancouver's residents, the mainland migrants were that and more. As in other cities around the world where they are buying property, they were perceived to be driving up prices and that, in turn, was raising the cost of living in the city. Few of those accepted for the investment programme set up companies and most claimed to be retired or unemployed, meaning they did not pay taxes; after relocating families, a number returned to China.

For Canadians, though, there was the added backdrop of a long-running debate over citizenship. Instances of migrants being found to have helped fund overseas terrorist groups and people taking citizenship and then living in other countries where they expected government help in times of need prompted argument about loyalty and commitment. That is understandable given the circumstances, but it also has to be appreciated that any migration system has to be based on needs, expectations and fine-tuning. Each society's anticipated outcomes will be different.

In a globalised world, governments are in hot competition for investment and talent. But, as much as countries need to grow their economies and populations to thrive, they have to ensure the process takes place in a fair and sustainable manner. That requires as much give-and-take from those already living in a city as it does from the newcomers.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post