Pandemic Borders

Immigration is the key to Canada’s survival and recovery after COVID-19

For Atlantic Canada to get through this crisis, a balance between public health regulations and migration are necessary.

Evangelia Tastsoglou
1 December 2020, 8.21am
Halifax Stanfield International Airport in Enfield, Nova Scotia
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Dennis Jarvis / wikimedia commons
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With COVID-19 disrupting travel, shutting borders, and redefining what is essential work, Pandemic Borders explores what international migration will look like after the pandemic, in this series titled #MigrantFutures

Closed borders and travel restrictions have kept Atlantic Canada (AC) with less COVID-19 cases than the rest of the country. This has come at the expense of population and economic growth through immigration.

In Canada, immigration is important for demographic, economic, and nation-building objectives. For Atlantic Canada, it is absolutely necessary for the very survival of the region.

What this means is that for AC to get through this crisis, it needs to find a balance between public health regulations and short and medium term needs of labour markets, population replenishment and growth, as well as the ongoing cultural cross-pollination of communities and university campuses in the region.

COVID-19 affects the health of immigration, too

According to data from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, immigration in Atlantic Canada started off well in the first quarter of 2020 in comparison with 2019, but, not surprisingly, it dropped by 62% in the second quarter (See Figure 1). This is slightly less than Canada’s overall decline of 64% in the second quarter, and certainly less than the overall OECD drop of 72% (OECD International Migration Outlook 2020). For the third quarter the average drop was 36% in comparison to the third quarter of 2019. There were interesting deviations for PEI and Newfoundland and Labrador, however given that their populations are a small percentage of Atlantic Canada’s total population, these deviations did not affect much the overall average drops for the second and third quarters.

As is often the case in global events such as the COVD-19 pandemic, those most in need are most harmed

Resettled refugees and protected persons provide a measure of Canada’s commitment to human rights, reflected in the humanitarian traditions Canadians are proud of. The numbers of refugees and protected persons, always much smaller, dropped to single digit or to zero in the second quarter of 2020, with very minimal increases in the third. As is often the case in global events such as the COVD-19 pandemic, those most in need are most harmed.

Screenshot 2020-12-01 at 09.03.34.png

The figures for the charts come from IRCC (“Admissions of Permanent Residents by Province/Territory of Intended Destination and Immigration Category, January 2015-August 2020”). The month of September 2020 for Q3 is based on a projection.

What the locales are saying

These are times with no models or indicators that can help find a magic answer. How is this fall in immigration numbers experienced in Atlantic Canada, a region that relies on immigration for its very survival? What are the implications of such reductions? What can we expect for the day after, when a vaccine is available and something like normalcy returns?

According to Jennifer Watts, CEO of Immigrant Settlement Association of Nova Scotia (ISANS), “Some reduction” in new clients is reported but also an overall reduction in 2020 is anticipated, due to “closures of Canadian government offices overseas, border closures, fewer flights and a pause in refugee resettlement in Canada, among other factors”.

In contrast to 2019, when the Halifax GDP growth was the best in a decade, 2020 saw a “record GDP contraction” forecast to 3.4%, stalling immigration, mass layoffs and “deep impacts” for the wholesale and retail, accommodation and food, information, culture and recreation and personal services sectors. Again, not surprisingly, women, young people, and those with lower incomes who are less educated were most affected, unfortunately (and I should note that there are “data gaps” for African and Indigenous Nova Scotians).

Labour force and employment shrunk by 5% and 10% respectively, as compared to 2019, while the unemployment rate in Halifax is now almost 11%. With labour force shrinking and borders openings in doubt for some time, would-be migrants and international students are affected, with a subsequent impact on construction, rents, and vacancy rates.

Newcomers contribute to the economy not only as business owners but also as employees, replenishing an aging workforce. Indeed, Atlantic Canada’s aging population means an increasing reliance on immigrants to grow its labour force, particularly in health care and support for the elderly. Employers are really frustrated because they cannot bring in health-care and other critical infrastructure workers, a situation exacerbated by border closing, as made clear by Newfoundland and Labrador immigration lawyer, Meghan Felt. This shortage of available labour was also reported by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB), which led it to call on the federal government to create a pathway for temporary workers to become permanent residents.

From immigrant to permanent resident

Reduced numbers of international students to Atlantic Canada mean not only reduced income for universities and reduced internationalization of both universities and surrounding communities, but also a reduction of an important pool of permanent residents. International students “are vitally important to regional population growth,” with 65% expressing “a ‘real desire’ to be permanent residents of Canada following graduation,” according to Peter Halpin, executive director of the Association of Atlantic Universities.

Immigrants’ contributions to the cultural diversity and internationalization of communities are often lost in discourses dominated by economics

While reduced immigration will have a mild negative economic impact (amounting to 0.15% drop in the region’s nominal gross domestic product), “it will slow down population growth, consumer spending, and housing demand,” says Fred Bergman, a senior policy analyst with the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council in Halifax.

Also important, Canadian immigrants currently in Atlantic Canada often have extended families living elsewhere. Their seasonal travel provided a strong traveller base for air carriers, now on pause. If remote attendance at birthdays, family weddings, and funerals is unavoidable for the time being, the separation of immigrant spouses forced to wait overseas in order to join their Canadian spouses and children can be prevented .

There is a wide recognition at all levels of government and among the public that the future of Canada “hinges on immigration” as IRCC Minister, Marco Mendicino, says during a Canadian Club of Toronto speech on 28 February. Atlantic Canada Premiers have emphasized their commitment to welcoming immigrants. A July 2020 meeting of The Forum of Ministers Responsible for Immigration agreed, “…now is the time, more than ever, to work together to attract, welcome and retain new Canadians”. Opposition to immigration along regional, generational, and political lines has diminished over the past year, according to an Environics Institute Canadian report on public opinion about immigration and refugees. By a five-to-one margin, all demographic and socio-economic segments of Canadian society believe that immigration makes Canada a better country. Indicative of this new Zeitgeist is former Conservative Prime Minister’s Brian Mulroney’s call for doubling the country’s population to 75 million. Such an increase will prepare Canada for a world after COVID-19.

The day after is a day too far

Immigrants contribute much more than demographic and economic growth. Immigrants’ contributions to the cultural diversity and internationalization of communities are often lost in discourses dominated by economics: bringing in the “global competitive edge”; the international talents, experiences and contacts; contributing as essential workers in the frontline of the pandemic. Most importantly, their diverse origins contribute to the creation of a unique identity for Canada as a society where diversity is valued, and human rights are respected and upheld.

This is the reason prospective immigrants choose to come to Canada, and not the US. Canada should build on this reputation for the day after in a post-COVID-19 competition for global talent and also for “essential workers” that will be at the heart of survival and recovery. Similarly, Atlantic Canada can also build on its reputation as a hospitable, friendly, and safe environment in a post-COVID-19, intra-provincial competition for immigrants.

Building on existing reputation means overcoming bureaucratic obstacles both federally and provincially through reason and imaginative use of technology, while fully respecting public health regulations. Governments need to be rallying public support for new and concrete pathways to increase each of the diverse streams of immigration now. Let’s not wait for the day after.

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