Cold temperatures have not stopped Canada from being the warmest towards immigrants, in fact, making it the only country to buck a global trend towards lowering the gates.

In recent months, several European governments, including Spain, Ireland, Denmark and the Czech Republic, have paid immigrants enticing sums of money to go back to where they came from. Not Canada, though. The government has said it will continue to welcome a quarter-million new immigrants a year, but will conversely tighten the refugee determination system that is seen by many as too liberal.

With high unemployment and a large number of citizens on welfare in all of the so-called First World, admitting newcomers who are likely to contribute to both is seen as politically un-doable. Canada, however, is following a different tack. “We are planning for the economic recovery,” says a spokesperson for Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, alluding to several positive indicators that have surfaced in recent weeks foretelling an economy on the rebound. Compare this with Australia’s 15 per cent cut in immigrant intake in the wake of the economic downturn.

However, Ottawa’s stay-the-course approach is bound to be balanced by a tougher attitude to refugee applications, which were set to record a dramatic increase until the government stepped in with visa restrictions on travellers from the Czech Republic and Mexico. The fear of human smugglers taking advantage of a sympathetic refugee system took on new urgency in October when a batch of 76 Sri Lankan Tamils landed in British Columbia aboard a ramshackle freighter. Every one of them filed refugee applications, but few have made it beyond the gates of a detention centre as the government goes the extra mile to conduct background checks and ensure they are not Tamil Tiger guerrillas out to turn Toronto into an alternative capital for their grievances. In the words of a government spokesperson, “We can’t allow the creation of a two-tier immigration system: one tier for people who wait patiently and legally in the queue to come to Canada and another for profiteers, for those who engage the services of snakeheads and human trafficking groups.” Besides domestic pressure for a refugee screening system that is less prone to exploitation, American concerns over Canada serving as a backdoor into the US homeland has resulted in tougher questioning of applicants.

The overriding message to what the Economist recently called the world of “footloose talent” is that Canada remains open to immigrants, even at a time when Western economies stare at the prospect of sustained 10 per cent unemployment well into the next decade. To the Canadian mind, this is a myopic view that will prove counter-productive in the long term. The need for immigrants to replace an aging population and thereby ensure that there are always more workers paying into pension funds than retirees remains a paramount calculation. It may also be that a recession may not be a good time to cut back on immigrant intake, which has the desirable effect of transferring wealth from rich nations to the 
developing world.

This transfer is worth an annual $283 billion, but may be impacted if immigrants lose their jobs or there is a fall in the overall numbers gaining residence in industrialised nations. In a macro-economic sense, immigration has the unintended consequence of lifting families out of poverty thereby diminishing the “push” factors that drive people to flee their countries of birth.

But with many magnets for mobile human capital, Canada and its provinces are learning to be nimble in the pursuit of top talent. A recent instance was the relocation of 80 Indian IT consultants from Hartford, Connecticut, to two Atlantic cities — Charlottetown and Halifax — following the collapse of the Hyderabad-based Satyam Computer Services. Living in the US on work-dependent visas that were threatened following the troubles of the Indian computer giant, the governments of Prince Edward Island (PEI) and Nova Scotia are reported to have worked actively with a Canadian company to make a smooth switchover. Another factor that makes Canada an attractive home for immigrants is its religious tolerance. According to a recent study conducted by the Pew Center for Religion and Public Life, Canada ranks among the most tolerant on a global scale.

Not all is well, however. In Quebec, attitudes towards immigrants appear to be hardening, particularly among Francophones. No wonder that a recent immigrant from Algeria was overheard interpreting his rights, only half facetiously, in this fashion: children first, then women, then dogs … then men.

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