Immigration debate, unstifled

Andrew Coyne
National Post
September 28, 2002

For the record, I don’t think Martin Collacott is a racist. The Fraser Institute analyst complains in his recent paper (Canada’s Immigration Policy: The Need for Major Reform) that critics of current immigration policy are often accused of racism, thus stifling what he believes is a much needed debate. The National Post, taking up his cause in an admiring editorial, urged “proponents of mass immigration” to “debate the subject substantively rather than resorting to slurs and questioning motives.”

Quite right. So let me say again: I don’t think Mr. Collacott is a racist. I do, however, think his economics are shaky, that his paper is riddled with dubious assumptions and unsupported assertions, and that he quotes selectively from the literature to support conclusions already found in his voluminous previous scratchings on the subject. It is, all in all, a shoddy piece of work.

The argument may be summarized as follows. Canada is currently experiencing “large-scale,” indeed “massive” immigration. This is imposing a heavy burden on the native-born population, whether in terms of increased unemployment, lower wages, higher crime and social tensions, or simply in the direct costs of resettlement programs. Yet no corresponding economic benefit has been shown. Indeed, he complains, the government has “no comprehensive plan” as to “how large a population Canada should have.” He suggests throttling immigration back to levels in keeping with the country’s “absorptive capacity.”

Let us first unbundle the assumptions hidden within these lines. Are current immigration levels, at roughly 0.8% of the population per year, “high”? Compared to what? Compared to the early 1980s, yes. Compared to the peak years, in the early 1900s, when immigrants were adding to our numbers at a rate of 3% per year, no. In fact, taking the whole of our history together, the average rate of immigration is about 1%. Current immigration levels are, by that standard, low.

What rate of immigration, second, would correspond with the country’s “absorptive capacity”? Mr. Collacott doesn’t say, and I’d love to know how he proposes to calculate it. All he will allow is that it is less than where it is now: the corollary to the idea that immigration is “high” because it is more than where it was before. I can only guess that something of the same methodology would guide the government in its determination of “how large a population Canada should have.”

But the most fundamental assumption underlying Mr. Collacott’s analysis is that it is up to the proponents of immigration to prove that it is of economic benefit to the host population – that the onus is on the immigrants to show why they should be admitted, rather than on the nativists to show why they should be kept out. This is not how we typically approach such questions. Generally, when it is proposed to restrict someone’s liberty, we say the burden of proof is on their detractors to show the harms that would otherwise result.

At that, the evidence is not so scanty as Mr. Collacott implies. He quotes from the Economic Council of Canada’s 1991 study, New Faces in the Crowd, to the effect that immigrants, no matter what wealth or skills they bring, do not “contribute” directly to the incomes of the host population, since whatever returns accrue to their human or financial capital are retained by them. That’s true, and it suggests that efforts to recruit “investor” immigrants are a waste of time.

But that’s not all the Council said. Immigration increases population, and larger populations reap the benefits of economies of scale. Mr. Collacott dismisses as “very small” the Council’s estimate of the scale-economy effects of immigration – an additional three-tenths of one per cent of GDP for every 1 million immigrants. But 0.3% of a $1.1-trillion economy is $3.3-billion, or $3,300 per immigrant. And not just as a one-time payment, but every year, indefinitely. So just by showing up, the average immigrant makes a lifetime contribution to the Canadian economy on the order of $100,000.

Indeed, the Council also debunked the notion that immigration, by adding to the supply of labour, increases unemployment: the “lump of labour” fallacy to which Mr. Collacott appears to be a fully paid subscriber. This same slapdash selectivity crops up throughout the paper. In some places he complains that immigrants lack skills, and so depress wages in labour-intensive industries. In others he warns that a “massive influx” of skilled professionals is “helping to create an on-going brain drain.”

Time and again Mr. Collacott runs up against the facts’ embarrassing refusal to support his thesis. Somehow this is turned into further proof. “Although Canada has not yet seen the emergence of full-fledged ethnic ghettoes,” he writes, “there are indications that these could develop.” And, “while there is no evidence that any Canadian communities are on the verge of experiencing the tensions and riots that have taken place in a number of British cities . . . it would be folly to assume that such events could never happen in Canada.”

Race riots? I’d say he sounds like Enoch Powell (“Like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood'”), but then I’d be accused of stifling the debate.

Andrew Coyne is a columnist with the National Post and a member of Energy Probe Research Foundation‘s (EPRF) board of directors. Urban Renaissance Institute is a division of EPRF.

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