No federal government likes to give up control but in the case of immigration, it’s worked out for the best.
Our immigration system is admired globally. Canada has largely avoided the divisive immigration debates that have plagued our close allies: the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia.
A Gallup poll shows that Canada is more welcoming to immigrants than any other country in the world.
Decentralization of immigration began in 1991 with Quebec’s demands to have more control over French-speaking immigrants in order to better integrate them into Quebec’s distinct society.
The federal government, worried about Quebec separation, acquiesced to Quebec’s demands. Ottawa still controlled family sponsorships, refugee migration, and ensured that newcomers passed health and security screenings. But other than that, Quebec could create its own system and decide how many new immigrants to accept each year.
Then the me-too effect kicked in. Once Quebec had some control of immigration, other provinces wanted it. Ottawa was happy to give up some control to provinces because, at the same time in the nineties, Ottawa was going through a debt crisis and was happy to transfer those costs to the provinces.
So, in 1996, the Provincial Nominee Program (PNP) was created. The federal government would retain the rights it had in Quebec’s case but the provinces would design the programs themselves and much of the work -and cost- would be borne by the provinces.
Under the PNP, employers and postsecondary institutions with the cooperation of the provinces, would select applicants.
The provincial programs offered an easier route to permanent residency than federal programs did.
Critics argued that the PNP would be a disaster. Employers, provinces, and postsecondary institutions, they argued, didn’t have national interests at heart. And they don’t have the expertise to support language skills and integration of newcomers. Those who ran the immigration programs were often unskilled and open to fraud.
Another criticism of the PNP was that Immigrants could shop around for provinces that offered the best entry programs and then move to wherever it suited them.
At first, it was so. Big cities attracted immigrants because of their existing multiethnic communities where newcomers share the same languages and observe the same customs. Toronto, Montreal, or Vancouver were often the final destinations because they already had networks of friends and family to help them launch a Canadian life.
As a result, only 28 percent of nominated immigrants to Prince Edward Island since 2008 were still living there. Manitoba did better, retaining 84 per cent. The difference, says Kelly Toughill in her feature-length article, was each program’s ability to support newcomers (the Walrus, May, 2021).
But despite initial problems, decentralization of immigration has successfully continued with groups like the non-profit Kamloops Immigrant Services. The Canadian Labour Congress is now controlling some phases of immigration to fill the looming construction labour shortage.
The number of localized immigration programs has swelled to more than 100 scattered from coast to coast to coast.
Canada now has one of the most complex immigration systems in the world.
Flexibility means that provinces and agencies design programs attract who they want, where they want.
Our complex immigration system has also resulted in the highest public support for immigration of any country in the world. And it’s why Canada is winning the global competition for labour.