Refugees are Canada’s latest wave of pioneers

The immediate social cost is high, but in the long run a large influx of immigrants will help build our society

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Roslyn KuninImmigration is not quite a dirty word in Canada, but it is becoming a scary one.

Who is and will be coming into Canada? How many and from where? Are they going to disrupt our housing market, our health care, our schools, our way of life? What are they going to cost us?

Canada has been immigrant-receiving since before its inception as a country. Apart from First Nations, we are all from immigrant stock.

First came the pioneers, who turned sparsely-populated wilderness areas into farmland and settlements. It was not easy. The thought of a prairie winter in a sod hut without transportation, communication or electricity is chilling in every sense of the word. Nevertheless, these hardy souls persisted and by the start of the 20th century had made Canada one of the most peaceful, prosperous and desirable places on earth.

Immigration continued as skilled workers flowed into Canada from wartorn Europe and ambitious workers and entrepreneurs arrived from around the world. They came to build and staff businesses and industries in our open, honest and free society.

The result of this inflow of population is a country that we can be proud of. So why the concerns about immigrants now?

The large and growing numbers of people coming in over a relatively short period is one reason. The current target for total immigration this year is 300,000, a number not reached since 1913 and 20,000 more than last year. Of these, 55,800 will be refugees — more than double the number of refugees received last year. Most come from countries where English or French is not spoken, and cultures and social practices differ from what prevails in Canada.

The political approach toward refugees has also been criticized. Less emphasis has been put on economic migrants: those ready, willing and able to go to work, and who may even have a job already lined up. Temporary foreign workers have been curtailed, leaving employers and businesses in the lurch. Canadians, even those unemployed, did not rush in to fill the jobs the temps vacated.

Last year, the federal government promised that there would be increases in family-related immigration to offset the reduction in workers. This was good news for those recently arrived who did not yet have all their family members with them. In the short term, it was not good news for the economy as young children and old parents do not work but do use government services. Now family migration is being delayed to make room for the large number of refugees who are likely to be dependent on the community in the short run, regardless of their age.

In the long run, however, the picture becomes much brighter.

It is hard to find a prospering economy unless there is also a growing population. Look at the stagnant populations and economies in places like Eastern Europe and Japan. The 300,000 new arrivals to Canada mean more consumption in the short run and more workers and entrepreneurs in the long run.

In order for the new arrivals to become contributors to the Canadian society and economy, both government and citizens will have to make an investment in their future. Language is essential. English as second language classes are needed. So are opportunities to meet, eat and work with local people in ways that are not too heavily language mediated, at least at first. Offering even part-time or temporary entry-level jobs to get that needed Canadian experience really helps. Making sure that children, in school and out, have a chance to meet and play with kids outside their original language group is very important.

Sure, some of the refugees may choose to go home should peace ever break out there. And not everyone who comes to Canada adjusts, adapts and becomes a millionaire. But the vast majority learn the language, adjust to local customs, get a job or start a business, watch hockey, pay taxes, raise the next generation and become Canadian.

In other words, they are our modern pioneers.

Troy Media columnist Roslyn Kunin is a consulting economist and speaker. 

© Troy Media


Refugees

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Roslyn Kunin

Dr. Roslyn Kunin is chair of the board of the Haida Enterprise Corporation, on the board of the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research and has been a Director of the Business Development Bank of Canada, chair of the Workers Compensation Board of British Columbia and member of the National Statistics Council of Statistics.

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