(Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons; the image is at this link. Used without modification under Creative Commons Licence)
Visitors to Canada can obtain work permits, temporary workers can get permanent status and elderly visitors can stay in Canada for 7 years. The implications for our workforce, healthcare & economy are dire.
AGE OLD PROBLEM
On June 7, the federal government announced a change to the Super Visa regime (see this link). For those who may not be familiar with the term, Super Visa is a special kind of visit visa that allows the holder to remain in Canada for an extended period of time. Until this announcement was made, that time limit was 2 years. With the change in policy, effective from July 4, 2022, they will be able to remain in Canada for 5 years, with the option to extend their stay by a further 2 years, for a total of 7 years. The link quoted above also mentions that on average, about 17,000 Super Visas are issued every year. Therefore, the potential maximum number of Super Visa holders present in Canada at any given time has jumped by 85,000, from 34,000 to 119,000.
Super Visa is meant for parents and grandparents of Canadians (citizens or permanent residents) under the umbrella of ‘family reunification’. As their sponsor, the child / grandchild has to buy medical insurance worth $100,000 as a condition for the visa to be granted. I mention this specifically because I often see some Canadians claiming that the medical expenses of visiting family members of Canadians are paid out of taxpayer money. That is not true. The issue that I have with the latest announcement is something that I have been worried about (and writing about) for a while: it is the disconnect between different government policies – or even within the same policy.
By default, many or most of the Super Visa holders are seniors. Setting emotions aside for a moment, one can objectively say that for people in their 60’s, 70’s and beyond, 7 years is a significant portion of their remaining lives. Also, this is the age demographic that has a higher probability of needing medical attention or treatment. While the $100K insurance covers the financial part of this, the physical part still has to come from the healthcare system that everyone else uses. As I have detailed in a series of articles (starting with ‘Canada’s Healthcare Crisis’), our healthcare system suffers from severe shortcomings including under-capacity. Add to this the fact that Super Visa holders are, by and large, in the age demographic that is most likely to need this healthcare system. Increasing this most vulnerable population by 3.5 times (or 85,000 in raw numbers) is, therefore, decidedly reckless in the absence of increased capacity in our health are system. Any increase in the load on our creaky healthcare system will cause hardship for these seniors and their sponsoring progeny as well as friction with the rest of Canadians.
As we saw in my article ‘Canada’s Healthcare Crisis’, wait times for specialist treatment went up from 9.3 weeks in 1993 to 20.8 weeks in 2019. Covid has only lengthened it significantly and added a huge backlog of treatments for which patients will have to wait even longer than before. In this scenario, adding (potentially) 85,000 seniors to the population is bound to exacerbate an already dire situation.
Moreover, as far as I can make out from the announcement, the amount of medical insurance that the sponsoring child / grandchild has to arrange privately has not been increased. But realistically, a longer duration of stay may increase the probability for the parents / grandparents to need medical attention / treatment multiple times. If the earlier amount of $100,000 had been arrived at on a scientific basis, then it certainly needs to be revised upwards. In fact, there is a case to be made that this insurance amount should be periodically adjusted in line with the overall increases in the cost of delivering healthcare. In the unfortunate eventuality that the medical costs exceed the insurance coverage, the family would be put to difficulties that are preventable via amending the policy and paying a bit more in premiums.
In August 2020, the government put in place a policy that allows a foreign national ‘with valid temporary resident status as a visitor’ to apply for an ‘employer-specific work permit’ (see this link). This policy will remain in effect until February 28, 2023. I consider it likely that it will be extended beyond that date.
In my view, this policy turns the entry requirement for long duration stay in Canada on its head: it allows the person in on condition that their stay in Canada will be of a short duration & not involve participation in the workforce, and then lets them change their objective. This may seem like a benign piece of policy, but my concern here stems from another angle. I have often stated that regardless of the stated objectives of any policy, especially government policy, there will be people at the point-of-use who will utilize it for purposes that have nothing to do with those objectives. As we have seen in the case of international student visa policy, many unsuspecting young people get ensnared by unscrupulous elements and get exploited. (As a side note, it needs to be stated that for the most part, they are exploited by people from their own ethnic / racial community – but we aren’t supposed to make a hue and cry about that, because all the ills that exist in Canada are supposedly due to ‘systemic racism’ and ‘white supremacy’).
In the case of this policy, I can see how the opportunity for getting an ‘employer-specific’ work permit can enable a chain of unscrupulous operators to lure in people (mostly young people) with an arrangement that gets them a work permit (which would not necessarily mean being employed at the same employer – they would have to find other (read: illegal) employment once the work permit has been obtained). Of course, the prospective ‘employee’ would have to pay a hefty fee for being facilitated in the exercise of establishing long term stay in Canada.
But that conjecture aside, the main question is why Canada needs this policy when there are multiple programs that specifically seek to address the labour shortages in Canada. Chiefly, these are what we usually mean by ‘immigration’ (i.e., granting Permanent Residency on arrival) and Temporary Foreign Worker Program. The annual quota for the former program alone is north of 400,000 a year, although some of them would be children and not expected to join the workforce immediately. Let’s take the number of new workers in this category at half the number of immigrants, at 200,000. The number for TFW’s is even higher than that for immigrants (470,000 for 2019, as per StatsCan at this link). Is the combined total of almost 700,000 a year not high enough, such that we need even more workers? Our economy would need to be going gangbusters for that to be the case – but it plainly isn’t.
As I see it, this policy has the main effect of depressing wages (via both legal and illegal employment) and thus would be to the detriment of Canadian workers and for the visitor-turned-worker group. The really sad part is that this was tried – and abandoned – earlier.
DEFINITION OF INSANITY
There used to be another program, called ‘Temporary Resident to Permanent Resident Pathway’ (or TRPRP in the lingo of immigration professionals) that was closed in November 2021. The most charitable way to describe its closure would be to say that it crashed and burned. According to an industry insider whom I spoke with, many people who applied still have no acknowledgement of their application and backlog still exists. Due to a ‘system glitch’, thousands more applications were accepted than the program was made for. Additionally, people who would simply not have qualified for the visa were allowed to apply. These included individuals working as cashiers in dollar stores (take a pause here and mull the fact that we need people on temporary status to staff cash counters in our stores). On a metric of points, the normal requirement was for 460+ points, but people with scores as low as 75 were allowed to apply.
In a word, the program was a royal mess and thus had to be wound down. In its place, the new one (which I discussed above) was brought in place, which is more limited in scope. But an ideologically driven government doesn’t stop because of trifling things like failure, even catastrophic failure. As the Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib wrote:
“Zakhm gar dab gaya, lahoo na thama”
(Even if the wound was bandaged, the bleeding didn’t stop)
And so it came to pass that a motion brought to the parliament recently (Motion M-44, see this link) whereby the attempt could be revived one more time.
COME ONE, COME ALL
Motion M-44 was passed in the parliament with a 324-0 vote on May 11, 2022 (supporters of the Conservative Party of Canada may want to ask the candidates running for the leadership of the party about this). It was introduced by Liberal MP Randeep Sarai. You may recall this name from l’affaire Jaspal Atwal, which was part of the much larger ‘l’affaire Trudeau Visits India. MP Sarai was the one who initially took responsibility for inviting Jaspal Atwal to two functions where PM Trudeau and his wife were present, until an alternative narrative emerged where it was the handiwork of nefarious elements in the Indian establishment.
The motion asks the government to ‘develop and publicly release within 120 days… a comprehensive plan to expand the economic immigration system to allow workers of all skill levels to meet the full range of labour needs and pathways to permanent residency for temporary foreign workers, including international students’. The motion further states that this plan should incorporate, among other things, ‘evidence and data gathered from … Temporary Resident to Permanent Resident Pathway’ (TRPRP, the one that crashed and burned).
My focus here is on the term ‘all skill levels’. Within the duration of my life in Canada, we have gone from justifying (rightly) immigration based on the high skills that would-be immigrants possess to talking about ‘all skill levels’ (which I interpret to include low / very low skill level). If my interpretation is correct, then we are looking at the possibility of floodgates being opened on the immigration front. There are untold millions of people around the world for whom life in Canada, not matter how adverse, would represent a huge improvement over their current circumstances, so I don’t blame them for jumping at the opportunity to immigrate to Canada. The onus is on Canada to decide who to let in.
I am not sure if these ‘120 days’ in the Motion are supposed to be calendar days or calculated by some other definition, but it is apparent that at some time during 2022, this ‘comprehensive plan’ to expand the economic immigration system will be made public. However, politics does not operate along objective lines, so it could be delayed as well. One possibility is that this ‘comprehensive plan to expand immigration’ will be publicized at a time when it offers the maximum advantage to the government that is in office now. In other words, this could be one of the major issues in the next election campaign, whenever it takes place. The Conservatives, having already voted in favour of the Motion, will be hard pressed to find a way to oppose the plan.
THE SUM OF ALL FEARS
At this point, two topics that I addressed in earlier articles are especially relevant. In ‘Our Money Tree’, I analyzed the bill that is in second reading in the Senate (Bill S-233) on the subject of introducing some version of Universal Basic Income in Canada. As I noted in that article, the Bill always and only says ‘all persons in Canada over the age of 17’ as the intended beneficiaries of this largesse, without distinguishing between Canadians on one hand (whether citizens, permanent residents or refugees) and non-Canadians on the other. The Bill talks about ‘guaranteed livable basic income’ to be granted. Taking minimum wage as representing ‘guaranteed livable basic income’ and using the broadest definitions (because the Bill is silent on those), we are looking at a tab of potentially $930 Billion-plus a year. Before Covid, the entire budget of the federal government used to be in the $300 Billion range. Even if the eligibility criteria are tightened so as to exclude 2/3rd of the people who would have otherwise qualified, the tab for our version of UBI would be over $300 Billion. In other words, the size of the federal budget would double from its pre-Covid level.
Funding this gargantuan commitment would require correspondingly higher tax revenue. But when our immigration policy is focused on bringing in people of ‘all skill levels’, as opposed to highly qualified and therefore highly paid people, we don’t stand even a snowflake’s chance in hell of meeting that level of tax revenues. Our only hope would lie in the UBI idea fizzling out – and even then, we would still need to face the depressed wages issue plus the additional demands on services such as healthcare (remember those 85,000 more Super Visa holders, in addition to the low skilled workers).
Secondly, as I discussed in my article ‘The Obsolete Human’ almost 3 years ago, the technological changes that are under way now are resulting, increasingly, in less and less human intervention for attending to more and more tasks. It is often argued that governments’ policy of increasing immigration is partly a result of pressure from businesses that want cheap labour, but we see that many businesses are automating more and more of their work, thus dispensing with human workers altogether. At the very least, they can (and do) use technology to outsource work to countries where labour is cheaper – as we saw in a recent report where the restaurant chain Freshii was found to be using workers in Nicaragua via a video link; the workers were reported to be getting $3.75 per hour as their wages.
I am of the opinion that the policies of the government (on immigration) and business (on adoption of technology) are working at cross purposes. While the government policy increases the supply of workers in Canada, the policies of business reduce the demand for workers in Canada. Ideally, one would want the two to coordinate their policies for optimal outcomes for the society. It is unclear to me why this coordination doesn’t appear to be happening.
HOLDING THE BABY
Small problems of today, if ignored, morph into big problems of tomorrow. From what I see, the political class has an insatiable appetite for increasing the number of people who come and live in Canada (and they may not even be immigrants in the normal sense, like those Super Visa holders staying here for 7 years). The problems that they create in the process are brushed aside in a number of ways: by spinning a narrative, or accusing opponents of being evil people, or via a pliant media taking their side to provide cover, or depending on partisan loyalties of their supporters etc. But at some point, the problem will be too huge and too urgent to be ignored. Unless we start a national debate on this issue now, our already meager ability to deal with it will become non-existent. The very viability of Canadian society as a prosperous one, I believe, hinges on this question.