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Business groups fear refugees and immigrant families will crowd out spaces for foreign workers in Canada

February 21, 2016

By National Post |

Provinces and businesses keen to bolster their workforce are worried the push for Syrian refugees this year will lead to a cutback in foreign workers..

The government admits a set number of immigrants each year. In 2015, for example, the Conservative government planned to admit up to 285,000 immigrants. Of those slots, 66 per cent were reserved for economic immigrants; 24 per cent of the slots were for the family members of immigrants; and the remaining 10 per cent were for refugees and other humanitarian entrants.

The federal government is supposed to provide its immigration admission numbers by Oct. 31 each year. Because of last fall’s federal election, the numbers for 2016 haven’t yet been published. The government now has until March 9 to come up with its plan.

But with tens of thousands more refugees being admitted this year compared to 2015, and with the Liberals’ campaign promise to make it easier for immigrants to reunite with their parents and grandparents, the number of slots reserved for economic immigrants may be reduced.

Immigration Minister John McCallum said last week he has consulted with industry, as well as refugee groups and other organizations about this year’s immigration levels. But he wouldn’t say whether the government is considering reducing the number of economic immigrants allowed.

Critics often accused the Conservatives of turning Canada’s immigration system into little more than a hiring program, with refugees and families being given short shrift. In 2007, foreign workers represented only 60 per cent of immigration admission targets. with 26 per cent family members and 14 per cent refugees.

Given the state of the Canadian economy, with unemployment rising, some question whether the government should continue to admit tens of thousands of foreign workers, including business people and skilled tradesmen, on a permanent basis.

But provinces, industry associations and experts say economic immigrants are essential for meeting Canada’s labour needs. Some bring skills that are in short supply in Canada, while others are willing to do jobs Canadians won’t. The country’s low birthrate also threatens long-term labour force supply.

“We really need immigrants to drive economic growth,” said Sarah Anson-Cartwright, director of skills and immigration policy at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce. “Economic immigrants make up about 30 per cent of new entrants into the labour force each year.”

Dan Kelly, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said economic immigrants are even more important now given that the temporary foreign worker program has been effectively frozen while the Liberals review it.

“The small business community does not want to see economic immigration drop in this country,” he said. “TFW has been rendered largely useless for small businesses.”

Provinces are also counting on the government to keep the levels where they are. One provincial official, speaking on background, said provinces loudly protested when federal immigration officials recently suggested that the number of economic immigrants could be scaled back this year.

“Our hope is it would remain the same or have a modest increase,” the official said.

But that could be difficult because of the Liberals’ promise to reduce the lengthy delays many immigrants face to be reunited with their loved ones, as well as the Syrian refugee crisis.

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