When the points system for selecting new immigrants was adopted by Canada in the 1960s, it was hailed as a Canadian innovation. The system removed any type of formal discrimination from immigration policy. Individuals would no longer be denied immigration to Canada, as it was in the past, based on their ethnicity, nationality or religion.
As reflected in the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, one of Canada’s objectives is the enrichment of the social and cultural fabric of Canadian society that respects the federal, bilingual, and multicultural character of the country. The law mandated that new immigrants are determined based on the number of points they score on the criteria of education, skills, language and employment.
Although Canada’s immigration policy does not explicitly discriminate on grounds of race or religion, discrimination continues to persist under the points-system, albeit in a much more covert manner. Qualifications such as education, skills and employment still represent a barrier because there is no equivalency between Canadian requirements and qualifications earned by applicants in their home countries. Oftentimes, the education and skills of immigrants are unfairly discounted and devalued. Some have also suggested that one of the more explicit forms of discrimination can be found in the investor or business immigrant category, which allows wealthy individuals to effectively buy access to Canada by bringing significant financial capital into the domestic economy.
Now, Canada Immigration is proposing to overhaul the point grid it has used for the past 20 years in determining applicants for permanent residence in Canada. To take effect in January 2013, the revised point-system will emphasize language skills, which Canada Immigration considers as a better predictor of rapid integration and economic success.
|People immigrating to Canada must pass minimum standard for English or|
French proficiency, says Canada Immigration Minister Jason Kenney.
Canada Immigration Minster Jason Kenney said that immigration applicants will have to demonstrate high levels of English or French fluency to gain entry to Canada. Language proficiency must be shown by all applicants in all classes but the most stringent requirement will apply to applicants in the federal skilled worker category, which accounts for nearly 100,000 of the roughly 250,000 immigrants who come to Canada every year.
One wonders why professional team sports like baseball, basketball, soccer and hockey are able to recruit the best athletes in the world without subjecting them to a language proficiency test. If the Toronto Blue Jays were to screen their baseball players for their fluency in English, all the Latino players would probably fail despite their natural ability to play the game. All the best hockey players from Eastern Europe would also flunk an English or French exam if this would be required by the Toronto Maple Leafs or Montreal Canadiens hockey franchise. For sure, it’s not the ability to speak either of the official Canadian languages that enables a player to hit a slider or a curve ball or shoot the puck into the goal.
Why would English or French fluency be the most important factor in the grid in the new system? Considering that majority of Canadian permanent residents become easily integrated into the Canadian mainstream and are able to speak either English or French before becoming citizens three or four years after being landed. The history of immigration in Canada has shown a high degree of language integration over time. That applies, too, to professional ball players who initially didn’t a know word in English or French, but have become as assertive in English and are able to display a form of swagger as English-speaking players are wont to do.
Language fluency as the most important requirement for social integration and job placement seems to be overstated. The truth could be that it is simply a device to discriminate against applicants from non-English or French-speaking countries. That the real purpose is to tilt immigration toward those who are more similar to the original Anglo-French Canadian Caucasians who speak either English or French and those who carry with them the culture of their language. Thus, no more Chinese and other Asians, Africans or Latin Americans despite their higher level of skills and dependable work habits.
According to Canada Immigration, this kind of language proficiency is now being imposed by other countries, such as Australia. Look at the new immigrants to Australia nowadays. They are mostly from the United Kingdom, Ireland and New Zealand, all English-speaking countries with a predominant white population.
Mikal Skuterud, an economist at the University of Waterloo said that most of the changes Jason Kenney has proposed to implement are inspired by the Australian immigration system. “It’s quite clear from the Australian evidence that it has the effect of shifting immigration away from non-English speaking countries, China particularly,” Skuterud said.
Canada Immigration would be using a Canadian Language Benchmark for all four abilities – speaking, oral comprehension, reading and writing. This will be the standard for describing, measuring and recognizing the language proficiency of adult immigrants and prospective immigrants in both English and French. That would be a total of 24 points for fluency in one official language as opposed to the former total of 16 points.
With the new and higher threshold for language proficiency, Canada is returning to an ethnocentric society rather than strengthening the country’s multicultural make-up. Back to a highly discriminatory immigration policy that the original points system wanted to remove.
Expect a dramatic shift in source countries, some critics have said about the new emphasis on language proficiency. Naomi Alboim, a public policy professor at Ontario’s Queen’s University, anticipates a decline in immigrants from China but a rise in the number from English-speaking countries.
While Prof. Alboim thinks that focusing on language makes sense, she cautioned that Canada should be more careful about setting the bar too high and “whether that is going to exclude a whole group of people who can contribute to a very significant degree with a little bit of assistance.”
|Immigrants learning English at LINC class, a government-approved language|
course. Photo courtesy of Dave Chan/Postmedia News
Right now, Canada offers several language training programs such as English as Second Language (ESL) courses which have helped many immigrants who have initial difficulty with the language. Eventually, most immigrants are able to integrate well as soon as they have picked up their new language skills. Besides, most entry-level job opportunities in the labour market do not demand very high English proficiency except for jobs in the federal government which are not open to new immigrants anyway.
Debbie Douglas, executive director of the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants, thinks the new immigration policy will screen out people from the global south. “We can’t discriminate against folks who don’t sound like us. That might mean more propping up of language teaching [for new immigrants] but that’s a very small price to pay for helping people contribute to building our country,” Douglas said.
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has stated many times in the past that diversity makes Canada stronger socially and economically. It is Canada’s commitment to a multicultural ethos that immigrants from many different cultures are coming to live in this country. Kenney has reversed this pattern of migration that obviously favours people who sound more like him.
To some extent, mastery of the language might produce better economic outcomes for immigrants in the short term. But it could also have other effects. Canada may struggle to find enough people with sufficient levels of fluency to maintain its very high immigration levels. The emphasis toward a higher level of English or French proficiency may also have an impact on Canada’s ties to a country such as China and studies have shown that trade ties increase through immigration.
According to Howard Ramos, a sociologist at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia: “The points system was introduced to correct the injustices of focusing on culture and language too heavily. It was a society and a time that was much more ethnocentric. I don’t think it’s a time we should try and return to.”
In overhauling the government’s immigration policy, the ruling Conservative Party has obviously turned a blind eye to the real causes of poor social and economic integration of new immigrants. Instead of tearing down barriers like non-recognition of foreign credentials, de-skilling of immigrant labour, and preference for temporary and seasonal foreign workers, Canada’s ruling government is hell-bent on restoring the shameful immigration policies of the past that deny immigration on grounds of ethnicity, nationality or religion.
Language proficiency may not strike as an obvious form of discrimination. But requiring new immigrants to speak English or French to a higher level to improve their economic prospects may have the unintended consequence of targeting favoured nationalities.