Immigration Policy: Lessons from Canada

U.S. Presidents have rarely looked to Canada for policies that America could adopt. Once again, President Trump is the exception to the rule. Two years ago, in his first address to Congress, he observed:

Nations around the world, like Canada, Australia and many others— have a merit-based immigration system. It is a basic principle that those seeking to enter a country ought to be able to support themselves financially . . . Yet, in America, we do not enforce this rule, straining the very public resources that our poorest citizens rely upon.

When he rolled out his new proposal for immigration reform recently, the President sounded the same theme. Taking aim at the U.S. immigration system’s green card lottery, Trump said: “Random selection is contrary to American values and blocks out many qualified potential immigrants from around the world who have much to contribute. . . . . While countless, and you wouldn’t believe how many countries, like Canada, create a clear path for top talent, America does not.”

He called his a “pro-American, pro-immigrant and pro-worker” plan that “fulfills our sacred duty to those living here today while ensuring America remains a welcoming country to immigrants joining us tomorrow.”

At present, 66 percent of green cards (granting permanent resident status) go to immigrants with relatives in the United States while 12 percent go to immigrants based on skills. In Canada, 25 percent of immigrants enter under the category of family reunification while 60 percent enter according to the skills criterion.

Canadian critics have called Canada’s policy “cold-hearted” for discriminating against low-skilled immigrants from developing nations. Americans are following suit regarding Trump’s proposal. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) characterized it as “condescending” because families have “merit,” too. Theresa Brown, director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, has faulted this kind of measure because “It would skew the employment-based immigration system to only the very top-top-top people in the world.”

These reactions from the Left are predictable, but it is worth noting that in Canada, a merit-based immigration policy was first adopted by Left-leaning governments in the 1960s. Before that decade, Canadian immigration policy was driven by racist and ethno-cultural considerations.

The 1910 Immigration Act gave the federal cabinet the power to bar immigrants “belonging to any race deemed unsuitable to the climate and requirements of Canada or immigrants of any specified class, occupation, or character.” The Chinese Immigration Act of 1923 disallowed all Chinese from entry except those who were diplomats, merchants, and government officials.

In 1947, Prime Minister Mackenzie King reiterated the continuous need for these restrictive measures. He warned:

Large-scale immigration from the Orient would change the fundamental composition of the Canadian population. Any considerable Oriental immigration would, moreover, be certain to give rise to social and economic problems of a character that might lead to serious difficulties in the field of international relations.

Although the Immigration Act of 1952 did not refer to race as the determining factor, that law still retained regulations that assessed immigrants’ admissibility into Canada according to their nationality, ethnicity, and potential unsuitability to the country’s customs as well as harsh climate.

Why Canada Set Aside Its Racialist Immigration Bias

With the dawn of the 1960s, a new approach to immigration categorically repudiated these restrictive policies. In part due to pressure from Commonwealth countries to have Ottawa take a stronger stance against apartheid in South Africa, governments across the political spectrum began to repudiate the old racialist bias in their own policies. In 1960, John Diefenbaker, as Canadian Prime Minister and leader of the “Progressive” Conservative Party, declared that all citizens of the Commonwealth nations should be treated “without regard to race or any other consideration.” Two years later, new immigration regulations replaced race-based criteria with a “skills-based” test for potential immigrants.

But it was the Liberal government of Lester B. Pearson that rolled out what came to be known as Canada’s merit-based immigration “points system.” Pearson, who was a friend of Presidents  Kennedy and Johnson, was sensitive to the charge that Canada’s advocacy of international human rights did not quite match up with the historic restrictions within its immigration policy. He was also under pressure from business interests to find new sources of cheap labor desperately needed in a booming economy. As a result, changes to immigration regulations in 1967 led to the creation of the points system, which assessed the economic suitability of potential immigrants.

The new system assigned scores based on the following criteria:

  • education and training
  • personal character
  • occupational demand
  • occupational skill
  • age
  • pre-arranged employment
  • knowledge of English or French
  • the presence of a relative in Canada

If potential immigrants demonstrated that they could benefit Canada’s economy, they would receive a high score and be accepted. They could also sponsor immediate family members in the bargain, although distant relatives would still have to undergo the points-system assessment. (In 1976, this restriction was lifted, based on the proviso that immigrants who sponsored distant relatives would provide financial care for them for up to 10 years.)

Although immigration into Canada from Asia, Africa, South America, and the Caribbean steadily rose in the ensuing decades, levels tended to wax and wane according to the overall performance of the country’s economy. During the stagflation of the 1970s, immigration to Canada fell from a high of 201,000 in 1974 to 86,000 in 1978. Downturns and upturns in immigration numbers mirrored the recession and prosperity of the 1980s as well.

Revising What It Means to Be “Liberal”

The attempt to revise the meaning of “liberalism” in Canadian history directly parallels radical changes in immigration policy after the 1960s.

Although debates over the true nature of liberalism are nothing new in the history of the West (as many Law & Liberty writers have discussed, most recently Nathan Schlueter), it was not until the 1970s in Canada that liberalism took on a novel and radical meaning, which the new immigration policy of the time manifested. The rationale behind the points system was in perfect accord with the classical liberal view that all human beings should have the opportunity to work hard and compete for a more prosperous life, based on their respective set of skills and talents. After the inception of this policy in 1967, a new definition of “liberalism” came to the fore in Canada. The traditional liberal emphasis on “equal rights” or opportunity gradually gave way to a focus on “group rights” or tribal identity.

This reinvented liberalism inspired what David J. Bercuson and Barry Cooper, in their book Derailed: The Betrayal of the National Dream (1994), aptly described as a revolution in Canadian politics that emphasized the forcible “making” of a nation rather than rational “persuasion” of its citizens.

Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau took office in 1968, a year after the inception of the points system. Trudeau (father of Canada’s current prime minister) demonstrated that he was a liberal in name only when he decided that the power of the federal government should be used to create a “truly pluralistic and polyethnic society.”[1] Although Trudeau retained the points system, it was not an effective tool for his social engineering project, given the system’s focus on economic benefits. Clearly, the federal government had to take on a more interventionist role. Without any popular support or mandate, Trudeau empowered the state to help new immigrants fight “barriers” to their full assimilation to Canadian society.

Perhaps the most striking of these measures was a “hate speech provision” contained within the Canadian Human Rights Act of 1977, which effectively sanctioned any “hateful” ideas that were critical of mass immigration or multiculturalism. In short, Trudeau the elder preferred to force an attitude of “tolerance” onto the majority population of Canada, instead of relying simply on the invisible hand of economic forces to assimilate immigrants.

Today, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau makes no secret of his belief that the state must continue to impose “diversity” on Canadians as they make the transition to what he calls a “postnational state” without any core identity (shades of his father’s “truly pluralistic and polyethnic society”). As the Canadian political theorist Anthony J. Parel has argued, “Wittingly or unwittingly, it [the policy of top-down multiculturalism and immigration] fosters the attitude that it is Canada that must change, not the immigrants who come to Canada.”[2]

Surprising as it may sound, a shift toward merit-based immigration in the United States shares more ideological common ground with the Canadian liberals of the 1960s (before the reign of Pierre Trudeau) than those of the present age, on both sides of the border. In restoring some common sense to immigration policy, President Trump’s proposal hopefully reminds friend and foe of this policy’s primary goal: to encourage economic prosperity for the nation-state, not to reinvent the social fabric.

[1] Quoted in David J. Bercuson and Barry Cooper, Derailed: The Betrayal of the National Dream (Toronto: Key Porter Books, 1994), p. 124.

[2] A.J. Parel, “Multiculturalism and Nationhood,” in George Grant and the Future of Canada, edited by Yusuf K. Umar, with a foreword by Barry Cooper (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 1992), p. 142.