ARCHIVED – Speaking notes for The Honourable Jason Kenney, P.C., M.P. Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism

At the Calgary Chamber of Commerce
Calgary, Alberta, September 16, 2011

As delivered

Thank you very much. It’s great to be here, back in my hometown in Calgary.

We know that Alberta is now one of the key engines in Canada’s economy, and we as a government will continue to do everything we can to advance and defend the interests of Alberta’s economy and our federation around the world. That includes doing everything we can to create new export markets for our oil and gas products, including the Keystone pipeline. We will leave no stone unturned to see that we can bring from the amazing wealth of this province, the natural resources which are developed through the ingenuity of Albertans, to markets around the world so that we are not a captive producer of energy. We are absolutely committed to that.

But, folks, I’m here mainly today to talk about the future of immigration in Canada. And this is a critically important subject in Alberta. Throughout the last week, I have visited with employers, business people, newcomers, settlement workers and community leaders all across Alberta, talking about how we need newcomers to help fuel our future prosperity in this province, which has always been a place of openness and hospitality for those who want to come here to work hard and play by the rules.

We all know that Canada is facing a very significant demographic challenge, as we have an aging society and the number of productive workers is shrinking relative to those who are retired. And so, if we are going to be able to keep our commitments for healthcare and for public pensions, if we are to continue growing as an economy and provide job opportunities for young Canadians, then we have to find ways to deal with that very significant demographic challenge.

Some say that we can do so simply by increasing immigration or maintaining high levels of immigration. Just to put things in perspective, right now Canada is settling, over the course of the past five years, the highest sustained levels of immigration of any government in Canadian history. Last year, we welcomed 280,000 new permanent residents. There’s some confusion about that. They’re not temporary residents. Those are 280,000 new permanent residents who will be on track towards citizenship. That represents 8% of our population per year that we welcome to this country, which is the highest per capita level of immigration in the developed world.

So we are already, of course, very open to immigration as we have been throughout our history. But it’s important to understand that immigration in and of itself is not and cannot realistically be the only solution to the demographic challenges of the future. For us merely to maintain the current average age in the Canadian population through immigration, we would need to more than quadruple immigration levels to Canada, and receive over a million newcomers per year. And I honestly think that’s just not realistic. We owe it to newcomers to ensure that there are opportunities for them. We don’t want to bring people here to face unemployment or underemployment.

And we owe it to them and Canada to ensure that we have the capacity to integrate those who arrive. Also, we have limitations in our social infrastructure, housing, healthcare, education and basic infrastructure. So I don’t think it’s realistic for us to consider increasing immigration levels by orders of magnitude just to maintain the current age ratio in the population.

Having said that, if there’s a practical limit to how many newcomers we can receive, the real question becomes: how do we ensure that those people who we select to come to Canada are those who will make the maximum possible contribution to our prosperity, filling the key labour market shortages that we know exist now and will in the future? So we have the big demographic problem and then we have the more immediate labour market problem, which we see most acutely here in Alberta.

You know, it was interesting…even during the recession that we were dragged into as a result of global events two years ago, we experienced labour shortages here in Canada. And by the way, it’s important to remind ourselves that Canada was the last major developed economy to go into the global economic downturn and the first to come out of it. And that wasn’t a coincidence. It was thanks, obviously, to the hard work of Canadians, especially entrepreneurs and in no small part Albertans.

But it was also thanks to the strong prudent policy decisions of Stephen Harper because our government, as we say in the Prairies, made hay while the sun was shining by paying down almost $50 billion off the federal debt in our first two years in office. And over our first five years in Ottawa, we cut federal taxes by over $185 billion – $3,500 for the average family – bringing the federal tax burden, as a percentage of the GDP, down to its lowest level since 1964. I think that’s an achievement worth celebrating.

That, together with strong regulation of our financial sector and key investments, allowed us to have the shortest and shallowest recession of virtually any industrialized country, certainly amongst the G7 countries. And yet – even though unemployment went up during that period, even though there were some job shortages – we have replaced all of those lost jobs. In fact, we are the only G7 country to have replaced all of the jobs lost during the global economic downturn and we now stand out in the G7 and in the OECD as having the best growth prospects, the strongest fiscal position, the strongest financial sector and the strongest labour market. And we will do everything we can to insulate Canada from further instability in the world economy.

But notwithstanding all of that, even during the recession we actually, as you well know, experienced labour market shortages here in Canada, particularly in the West and in Alberta. It’s peculiar if you think about it. We had unemployed Canadians and yet jobs were going unfilled. And it’s a paradox that we as a country must solve – all levels of government and the private sector. We must find ways to move those Canadians who are unemployed or underemployed, especially long term, towards productive employment. I know Monte (Solberg) worked on many of these ideas, as the Minister of Immigration and Human Resources.

But the reality is this: because immigration cannot in and of itself be a solution to labour market problems and because of the aging population, we must move Canadians from underemployment and unemployment to the jobs that are available. That means, in part, making sure that young Canadians train for the kinds of skilled trade positions which are going unfilled. And we’ve created apprenticeship programs and other incentives to do just that. I know Alberta, NAIT and SAIT are doing an excellent job, but it’s just hard to keep up with the demand.

We must also address populations like our Aboriginal communities, where there is massive and permanent unemployment, often in regions with huge labour market shortages. It just doesn’t make sense. And we are trying everything to find the best practices. We know that there are some First Nations communities that have done a great job of helping to instil a work ethic in their young people and have trained them up. We can see that in Northern Alberta in many of those communities. However, there are still many more where there is chronic underemployment and that is something we must resolve.

Of course, there are pockets of the country that have double digit unemployment, if you can believe it, where my ministry is bringing in temporary foreign workers to take good paying jobs. And I just think there’s something fundamentally wrong with that. I have employers in some of those regions with double digit unemployment, saying ‘please help us bring more temporary foreign workers in. No one’s applying for these jobs.’ Jobs that are paying $12, $16, $18 an hour. And so again, we as a country must find a solution.

But let’s celebrate some of the good news. We have seen some considerable success in people coming, for example, from parts of Atlantic Canada, from Newfoundland and Cape Breton – regions of perpetual high unemployment – to Alberta, to this incredibly prosperous labour market. I was recently in Cape Breton and that used to be a region of chronic economic depression and, I’ll tell you, you see businesses opening up, new houses being built, people driving around in new pickup trucks, and you know where that’s coming from. Those are the Capers who’ve been working in Alberta, making very good money, going back and investing in their homes. That’s the Canadian economy working as it should. We want to continue in that direction.

But with respect to immigration, we understand as a government that we must do a much better job of aligning immigration policy with our economic and labour market needs. Now, for a long time, we had a situation where 85% of immigrants were choosing to settle in our three biggest cities – Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. And all too often, they were facing underemployment and what we call the ‘survival job trap’ in those places. Many of these people have high levels of education and come from professional backgrounds in developing countries. They leave their countries of origin and deprive themselves of their human capital, coming to Canada to find out that the barriers to credential recognition or employment were so great that they ended up stuck in survival jobs. As our colleague Devinder Shory says, the best place to have a heart attack in Calgary is in the back of a cab.

I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know there are hundreds of thousands of frustrated foreign trained professionals whose human capital we are not benefiting from and who are facing great frustration as a result. I mean, I was at a public meeting in Red Deer the other day and met a man who was a dentist, both him and his wife, from Central America and they have been here for five years. He’s working as a janitor and he broke down in tears telling me about the shame he has that he brought his family here to face… that kind of underemployment. And so we must do more for those people to bring them into the labour market.

Now, this is a very tricky issue, but let’s be clear. The point is not that our licensing bodies should lower their standards, and I think sometimes they create that as a boogeyman scare tactic on this issue. The point is that they owe it – we owe it – to those foreign trained professionals, to give them a fair shot in a straightforward process in a reasonable amount of time, and not string people along for year after year after year of red tape. Even though this is a provincial responsibility, we’re frankly frustrated with the barriers to employment for foreign trained professionals, which is why Prime Minister Harper put this for the first time ever on the agenda of the First Ministers Meeting. He did so two years ago and said to his provincial colleagues ‘we’ve got to find a solution to this problem, starting with domestic Canadian labour market mobility.

It shouldn’t require a dentist, moving from BC to Alberta, three years to get trained to practice. We need full domestic labour market mobility. So our government is very serious about this. We’re actually investing $50 million of your money, tax dollars, into a process to get all 10 provinces and all roughly 45 regulatory bodies around the table to hammer out a streamlined, common, fast process for considering credential recognition. We want them to give those applicants an answer within a year.

We’re also doing a number of other things. For example, we’re now providing counselling to economic immigrants before they leave their country, before they get here, on how to apply for credential recognition, and how to get a job in Canada so they can get a head start. And I’m also very excited to tell you that we committed in the election and, in the weeks to come, we will be announcing a program to expand on some fantastic work being done here in Alberta by the Alberta Immigration Access Fund, which provides micro credit to bridge financing for foreign trained professionals in Canada.

What do I mean by that? Well, often when these folks arrive, they have no credit rating in Canada and they can’t borrow money. They have depleted their savings to move here and get set up, and they’re stuck doing the survival job or two to feed their family. But then they find out, in order to be recognized in their profession, they need to go back to school and take some additional courses, maybe get a diploma. They don’t have the money to do so.

And so we will be working with the private sector, with philanthropists and banks, in order to help facilitate a kind of a credit bridge, to help people get over that catch-22 that they’re stuck in so they can actually get those courses and get into the productive work force. And so far, in the programs that have been run, there is more than a 95% repayment rate. So we trust those newcomers to invest in their future.

But I should also point out that we have been very successful as a government in finally getting a much better distribution of immigrants across the country. I told you 85% used to settle in Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver. That is now down to about two thirds, about 65%. And we have seen a huge, huge increase in immigration to other parts of the country…in parts of Atlantic Canada, but primarily the West in general and Alberta in particular. Over the course of the past 10 years, the number of immigrants settling in Alberta per year has more than tripled. Since we came to office, it has more than doubled. And most of those are economic immigrants.

That was not a coincidence. It’s because we massively expanded the Provincial Nominee Program. Some of you may know about this, where we basically as a federal government said ‘look, we are going to give to the provinces a number of the positions that we normally use to select immigrants and the provinces, in turn, will work with employers to identify those folks who have the skills they need.’ And that’s working for Alberta. In fact, when we came in 2005, before we came to office, Alberta was only getting 400 provincial nominees a year. Last year, Alberta received 7,500 provincial nominees and it’s on track to receive 10,000. These are permanent residents filling key job shortages in Alberta and helping to fuel this province’s prosperity.

We’ve also made some changes, and will continue to make changes, to the Federal Skilled Worker Program. It’s moving faster for new applicants. New applicants don’t have to wait for seven years any longer. They can get in within eight or nine months, and especially if they have an arranged offer of employment.

So these are some of the things that have resulted in a significant increase in immigration to Alberta, but that’s not enough to fill the job shortages. And that’s why we have the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. Now, this program is much maligned by special interest groups, by union bosses, by some in the media who I think misunderstand it, and some of our government’s political adversaries who, I think, irresponsibly depict the Temporary Foreign Worker Program as though it is some form of organized exploitation of vulnerable foreign workers. They paint this picture of industrial revolution sweatshops or something that these people are coming to.

Let me say that most of the critiques of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program are ridiculous and unfounded, and I want to work with businesses, and indeed those temporary foreign workers who are having a great experience in this province, to say that what we are doing is giving them opportunity. When I meet temporary foreign workers across Alberta, they say to me that they’re able to earn in this province, in a couple of days, what it would take them a month to earn back in their country of origin. And that, for them, represents a life savings over a year or two to start a new business, to build a new home. This is opportunity that we are providing and every single one of those people have their work conditions and their labour rights – all of them protected under exactly the same laws and the same system as Canadian citizens. And we require that the employers pay them the Canadian prevailing regional wage rate.

The notion that some interest groups suggested – that these folks are undercutting the labour rates – is ridiculous. In fact, most of the employers tell us that we’re requiring them to pay, effectively in some areas, above what the real actual wage rate is in Canada. And let me say, you know, during the recessionary period, we continued to facilitate this program even though there was a lot of criticism. And why did we do so? Because we were of the view that the worst thing we could do in a recession would be to strangle those businesses that were growing and prospering through a shortage of labour.

And we know that’s the case again today in Alberta. There are businesses, large and small, that are turning away orders, that are unable to fulfill contracts because they don’t have the workers to do the work. Now, let me make one other point about the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. Again, this is a much maligned and much misunderstood program. Canada welcomed about 185,000 temporary foreign workers last year. We’ve gone up in Alberta over the past several years, from about 10,000 temporary workers to 58,000 in Alberta today – an expansion of about 400%. And we’ve done that because, if those people weren’t here, businesses would be shutting down and Canadians who work in those businesses would be losing their jobs. That would be entirely counterproductive.

But it’s important to understand that there is a full range of people coming in to contribute to our economy in this program. Of the 180,000 we welcomed last year, 68,000 were categorized as high-skilled workers. These are people with advanced skill levels. And I was talking to some of the employers earlier today here about this, about people with very specialized engineering knowledge, for example. We’re not talking about simply a large number of so called low-skilled workers. Twenty-one thousand came under what we call the NAFTA visas. This is where, for a certain number of occupations, typically very highly trained and educated people, you can work permits to work in Canada, Mexico or the United States. So fewer than 50,000 – fewer than a third of the temporary foreign workers – were actually low-skilled folks.

Now some say that we should give all these people permanent residency in Canada. You know, I can understand employers, when they find someone that’s working well, they’ve trained them up, and that they want to keep them. That makes sense. But I ask you to remember that there is a practical limit to how many people we can settle in Canada. And, if we were to follow the advice of some and grant immediate permanent residency to temporary foreign workers…well, first of all, there would be no reason for many of them to stay in the particular jobs they were hired for, so it’s no solution to the labour market problem. And, secondly, it would imply increasing immigration levels to about 450,000 per year in Canada.

Now, 80% of Canadians are telling us that immigration levels are already high enough or too high. And I do not want to make the mistake that has been made in other countries, such as Western Europe, where you end up with elite opinion on these issues being completely disconnected from popular opinion. Canadians are open to immigration, they are generous, they are welcoming, Albertans are particularly so, but they also realize there are practical limits to our capacity to integrate folks.

Now I know there are some frustrations in the business community amongst employers about some of the red tape…some of the hurdles, the burdens, the processing times in the administration of this program. I’ve been listening to employers all around Alberta. And we hear you. We understand. We understand that the labour market is tightening and there needs to be some solutions to make sure the program works for Canada and for the workers. And that’s why I’m pleased to tell you that my colleague, the Honourable Diane Finley, Minister of Human Resources, will be here in Calgary next month to meet, along with me and our officials, all of the key industry sectors in Alberta. It’s our intention to hammer out a process that is more efficient, that eliminates unnecessary or redundant bureaucracy and red tape, so that the Temporary Foreign Worker Program works on time for the Alberta economy.

I also want to tell you that some people criticize us, saying again that there’s no avenues for permanent residency for these folks. That’s not true. Our government, in fact, Monte Solberg introduced the most exciting innovation in Canadian immigration policy in a couple of decades, the Canadian Experience Class. This program allows foreign students who have graduated from Canadian colleges or universities and high-skilled temporary foreign workers to become permanent residents from within Canada.

It was really stupid in the past. You know, we used to accept these kids as students or high-skilled temporary workers and they would contribute, their English language skills would be perfected or improved, they would get the social skills to function well in Canada. They’d get that critical work experience. In the case of students, they would get a degree that would be recognized by Canadian employers and then we’d say, ‘great, thanks very much, you’re set for success, now please leave Canada and get in the back of a seven-year queue.’ That’s what we were saying. No longer. Now, we say to them, ‘fantastic, you’re set for success in Canada, please stay, you’re welcome to be a permanent resident through this new program.

So these are just some of the things that we have done. And, finally, we also recognize there’s a need to help invest in the success of newcomers. And that’s why our government has actually, in five years, quadrupled the federal investment in settlement services for newcomers to Alberta in particular. And so there’s more access to language training, job search skills and other practical life skills to make sure that they succeed quickly. Because, ultimately, what we want is to ensure that people integrate quickly and successfully.

Let me close by saying that Alberta deserves a lot of credit. As I go around this province in smaller communities that, 10 or 15 years ago, had very little diversity…I mean diversity might have been the diversity between people of Polish and German origin in some of our communities or Scottish and Irish origin…now, there is an amazing spectrum of diversity all across small town Alberta. And, overwhelmingly, this has been a very positive experience.

Well, people, these newcomers were welcomed with open arms. And do you know why? It’s because all of us, as Albertans, know that we’re pretty new in this place. Not many of us trace our roots back more than one or two generations. And even those who are from pioneer families know that what characterizes Albertans is their work ethic. And we don’t care where you came from; we care about where you’re headed.

And what we, what we expect from you is your intention to work hard and play by the rules. And I’m pleased to tell you the vast majority of the people from all around the world who are joining us as new Canadians and new Albertans do just that. Let’s work together to make sure that their Canadian story is a success story, and that we can continue with them to grow our prosperity. Thank you very much.

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