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Canada’s immigration minister is making headlines, but how much is show?

Opinion: The childhood friend of Justin Trudeau has become quotable as he goes after the ‘perverse effects’ and ‘lack of integrity’ in the migration system

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It’s rare when a politician criticizes the record of his own party, but that’s the approach Immigration Minister Marc Miller has been adopting.

The teenage friend of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has become quotable as he goes after the “perverse effects” and “lack of integrity” in the migration system that his Liberal predecessors — John McCallum, Ahmed Hussen, Marco Mendocino and Sean Fraser — built up upon gaining power nine years ago.

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When Trudeau appointed Miller in June 2023 he started off sounding like every other Liberal immigration minister — trotting out well-worn cliches about how record levels of permanent and non-permanent residents would replace retiring baby boomers and deliver economic opportunity for all.

But Miller’s tune suddenly changed last fall, along with polling results. They showed a huge shift to the federal Conservatives, a switch pundits attribute almost entirely to the rapidly increasing cost of living, especially in housing and rents, which economists say links to unparalleled population growth.

“There should be an honest conversation about what the rise in international migration means for Canada as we plan ahead,” Miller said last month.

His call for national frankness seemed a refreshing change from the Liberal habit of reinforcing English Canada’s historical taboo against debating migration policy.

At the same time he promised to decrease the number of temporary residents to five per cent of the population, from 6.5 per cent. The target for new permanent residents, meanwhile, would remain 500,000, almost double that of the Stephen Harper era.

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Miller also had something blunt to say in regard to the way his own party increased the number of foreign students in Canada — hiking totals to 1.028 million last year from 352,000 in 2015.

Before promising to cap new undergraduate study permits for next year at 360,000, which he maintained is a 35 per cent reduction from the year before, Miller had admitted reluctance to reduce Canada’s “very lucrative” foreign student scheme.

Yet he conceded it “comes with some perverse effects, some fraud in the system, some people taking advantage of what is seen to be a backdoor entry into Canada.”

Miller also said he would curb the country’s dependence on the “cheap labour” supplied by guest workers, which includes international students, most of whom, unlike in most countries, are permitted to work while aiming to become citizens.

Miller appears to be taking heed that bank economists have pronounced that Canada’s migration-fuelled population expansion of 3.2 per cent last year is killing productivity rates, lowering real wages, and hiking the cost of rents and housing.

Pop growth
The Liberal decision to drastically increase population growth (blue), 98 per cent of it through international migration, far outstrips Canadians’ ability to provide new housing (orange).

A pace of growth above three per cent has “never been seen in any developed country” since the 1950s, says Frederic Payeur, a demographer at Quebec’s provincial statistics agency.

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Economists increasingly complain the unnecessary reliance on temporary foreign labour leads to lower wages in Canada, which are falling far behind other nations.

“The volumes (of non-permanent resident admissions) are a byproduct of a lack of integrity in the system,” Miller said.

He also talks of “punishing the bad actors,” including employers, immigration consultants and temporary workers who exploit Canada’s welcome.

“We want to attack the fraud in Labour Market Impact Assessments, which in some places I think is rampant,” he said, referring to the way some bosses falsely claim (sometimes after taking kickbacks) that they must hire a foreign national because no Canadian is available to do the job.

There are more such stark Millerisms out there. And they sound vital. But could they be hollow?

More than a few wonder if Miller and his party could be indulging in a new strategy of political spin. Of saying one thing and doing another.

It’s quite plausible. Britain’s long-standing Conservative government is being accused of just that. It held onto power in 2019 by promising to reduce migration levels. But last year net migration to the U.K., population 67 million, soared to an all-time record of 745,000.

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But it’s also possible that Miller — who attended College Jean-de-Brebeuf with Trudeau and travelled with him on adventures to Africa and beyond — has delivered the unpleasant news to Trudeau that his one-dimensional strategy to rescue our sputtering economy by pumping up population growth is doing Canadians and newcomers more harm than good.

Whatever the motivation for Miller’s change of tone, there are reasons to be skeptical. For instance, historically, the government is promising only a modest proposal to reduce temporary resident numbers. And the Quebec MP is delaying bringing in the needed legislation to the fall.

As well, when Miller said he would take three years to trim numbers to a level that would still be much higher than before the Liberals came to power, it opens up a lot of political wiggle room. The end date for the cut would be at least 18 months after the next election, which is scheduled for October 2025.

In the meantime, it’s hard for even Miller to keep up with the catapulting numbers. Two weeks ago he said there were 2.5 million temporary residents in Canada. But, last Wednesday, Statistics Canada said the country actually had 2.7 million such guest workers, asylum seekers and foreign students.

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Miller
Immigration Minister Marc Miller talks of ‘punishing the bad actors’ in the system, as well as ending Canadian bosses’ addiction to cheap foreign labour. Here, Miller enters a Montreal church for the funeral of Brian Mulroney, Canada’s 18th prime minister, on March 23 in Montreal. Photo by John Kenney /Montreal Gazette

We will have to wait and see if Miller’s self-critical rhetoric provides his party with a bump in the polls.

The harsh reality is the Liberals have strayed far from the numerical “sweet spot” that Scotia Bank says is necessary “when it comes to economic immigration — where everyone is better off over time.” Canada, population 41 million, has already blown past such a sweet spot “by multiples,” says the bank.

With so many Canadians, especially young adults, facing stagnant wages and housing distress, National Bank economists Stéfane Marion and Alexandra Ducharme have gone so far as to actually suggest a sweet spot.

“At this point,” they say, “we believe our country’s annual total population growth should not exceed 300,000 to 500,000.”

That is a far cry from what StatCan reported last week: that in 2023 the country’s surging population increased by 1.3 million, 98 per cent of it from international migration.

Is Miller willing to make a serious dent in such totals? If so, that could offer newcomers and Canadians more hope, especially in regard to the cost of shelter, but also as an antidote to sluggish wages.

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The minister can say all he wants but, as with all of us, he will ultimately be judged by whether his words correspond to his actions.

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