As published in the Financial Post

Canada’s population is growing and getting younger thanks to immigration — both vitally important points given our need to add to our working age population, address labour shortages and grow the industries of tomorrow within our borders.

Yet even as we make some progress in these areas through immigration, the truth is that Canada’s brand as a welcoming nation of opportunity for immigrants is at risk, which in turn puts our shared economic prosperity in doubt.

Being “welcoming” in this case doesn’t just mean accepting newcomers. It means ensuring that when immigrants arrive, they can thrive and participate fully in society and the economy. On this score, Canada has work to do.

Consider a recent survey of 500 newcomers to Canada by Angus Reid Institute and Publicis Media that showed almost half intend to leave Canada or are considering leaving. For too many, Canada’s cost of living and the housing market are challenges.

We must urgently address these and other vital issues to get the full — and needed — benefit of immigration.

In a recent address I gave at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax, I recalled the story of my father who came to Canada as a Croatian refugee in 1961. It was a time when one could knock on doors and, with some skills and a willingness to work hard, land a job that paid a good wage.

He and my mother, who immigrated three years later, could slowly but surely get ahead. They were able to save and buy a home in just a few years. In many respects, they lived the dream. Canada welcomed them and provided opportunity.

Their story is the story of millions of immigrants who have enriched our country socially, strengthened our workforce and economy, and contributed to building the Canada we know today — one with a global voice, and significant potential.

But we must keep the dream alive if we expect to continue to grow. Today, that dream is at risk for a number of reasons, including housing affordability, and the fact that, while work is plentiful, many jobs simply do not pay enough for people to get ahead. Others require accreditations that should be more easily recognized but are not, so immigrants end up working in roles far below their skill level, unable to contribute as much as they want and as much as Canada needs.

Without immigration, Canada’s working age population would be shrinking by 150,000 people every year. This would present significant challenges that all Canadians would feel since 60 per cent of GDP growth comes from population growth.

We also face an aging population, coupled with a pandemic that accelerated retirements. A recent Statistics Canada survey showed that Canada’s median age has been increasing steadily since 1971 — a trend just reversed this year through immigration

Businesses struggle to find workers, and across the country we need bright minds and capable people to help build our reputation in the new economy and power the industries of tomorrow.

This all has immediate impact by reducing our economic output. It also has longer term ramifications. If our economy doesn’t keep pace with global peers, over time we’ll lose our draw as a new home for immigrants and influence on the international stage.

So how do we ensure Canada builds its reputation as a welcoming nation of opportunity? How do we address those threats to ensure that my parents’ dream, one that so many around the world share, remains achievable?

First, we must ensure housing is affordable, because a place to live is essential to the dream of building a life in Canada. This is true for newcomers and for those saving for a home and looking to start out in life.

We can consider how we lend and look at options to make entering the housing market easier, but supply is a large part of the challenge.

We can think creatively about density, and about building more rental housing as a pathway to homeownership. In addition, government land could be used strategically to ease the supply crunch.

Second, we must ensure newcomers can participate meaningfully in the labour market with a job that suits their skills and also meets the needs Canada has. That means moving faster to recognize skills and accreditations.

We can do this. As our health-care worker shortages became more acute, we’ve seen some provinces move to fast-track accreditation of foreign-trained nurses. But we shouldn’t be waiting for a crisis to act.

Third, we must ensure all newcomers have an opportunity to earn a living wage.

For example, CIBC recently raised our minimum wage to $20 an hour for entry level roles, with a commitment to get to $25 by 2025.

We did this recognizing the importance of attracting talent, but also the importance of providing a wage that can contribute meaningfully to household finances. We hope this is an example that others will follow.

And fourth, we need to think bigger about immigration. We may need to increase Canada’s target from the current 400,000 people a year to give us the population density, human capital and capacity to be a leader in the new economy.

But we can’t consider accelerating our immigration if we can’t provide homes, an affordable cost of living and the right jobs and wages to those arriving now.

We need to remain a welcoming nation of opportunity where newcomers can build their lives and leave their legacy. Our shared prosperity depends on it.