Alberta’s case for economic mobility

Despite heightened anti-immigration rhetoric, migration is crucial for economic wellbeing

Alberta Venture, December 2016



Amid a global refugee crisis kindled by the Syrian civil war, worldwide hostility towards free trade and free movement – Brexit, anyone? – and a U.S. presidential candidate whose most popular policy proposals include banning Muslims and building border walls, it’s little surprise that we’re witnessing a surge in anti-immigrant and anti-refugee attitudes here at home. In the race for leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada, candidate Kellie Leitch has proposed to screen newcomers for “anti-Canadian values.” A mosque in Cold Lake has been repeatedly vandalized with graffiti reading, “Go home,” and that same slogan was spray painted on a garage in this writer’s hometown, not long before two of the family’s vehicles were set on fire. This, in a province settled only recently by waves of Chinese, Polish, Norwegian, Ukrainian and Irish immigrants, to name just a sampling, and which spans three treaties with 45 First Nations.

But compassion and historical precedent are hardly the only reasons to welcome immigrants. “Migration, no matter how controversial politically, makes sense economically,” reads the introduction to a new study from the International Monetary Fund, which buttresses the long-held maxim that mobility precedes prosperity. In advanced economies, it says, a one per cent increase in the share of migrants in the adult population increases GDP per person by two per cent in the long term. And that’s not just an increase in the workforce-to-population ratio – it’s a genuine increase in labour productivity, and it comes from both low- and high-skilled migrants. It benefits both the bottom 90 per cent and the top 10 per cent of earners, too. That’s good news for Canada, where migrants make up about 25 per cent of the working-age population.

Migration is crucial for another reason, too. As Frances Woolley, a professor of economics at Carleton University, wrote for Maclean’s, for the first time in Canadian history there are more seniors over 65 than there are children under 15. Beyond a tax base that will pay for those seniors’ health care, think of the impact on the housing market when there are “millions more ‘future home sellers’ than ‘future home buyers,’ ” Woolley writes. “Immigration at the present level of about 250,000 new permanent residents per year will fill the gap between sellers and buyers at the aggregate level.”

Yet those who would close our borders still disguise their case in economic terms. “What about the resources immigrants need in the short term?” they ask, before landing on the perfunctory “now isn’t the right time” rationale so common in a downturn. But data from the early 1990s recession, when Canada didn’t tighten immigration, show that while newcomers often struggled to find or keep meaningful employment, they certainly helped keep the real estate market afloat for those of us already living here.

“I think the fear is that somehow there’s this zero-sum game if the newcomers are given certain benefits,” says Stephen Carattini, CEO of Catholic Social Services, which has helped settle almost 1,500 Syrian refugees (about 60 per cent of whom are children younger than 12) in Edmonton and Red Deer. “But for the most part, what we see is an expansion of the economy, a sort of ripple effect flowing out. The newcomers still have to pay rent, buy schoolbooks and buy food, so there’s an interdependence I think is very profound.” Imagine, Carattini says, the impact to our economy when many of these Syrian refugees graduate from our high schools, colleges and universities. There’s a great opportunity for Alberta’s rural economies, too, many of which suffer from dwindling populations and labour shortages yet welcome few newcomers. “What [refugees] want to do most is work,” Carattini says. “They have to work. There’s also an acknowledgement of a great debt of gratitude – people wanting to start working so they can give back and not be a burden to the community they’re in.” Rather than despair at the infrequent (but all-too-visible) xenophobic outbursts, Albertans should remain steadfast in our commitment to economic openness and tackle nativism with appeals to reason. The data are in our favour.

Reprinted with permission from Alberta Venture.