Ottawa should allow the provinces to take charge of integrating new immigrants into our society

May 28, 2010
National Post

Matthew Mendelsohn

The Greater Toronto Area is amongst the most diverse places on Earth. Approximately 30% of people living in Ontario were not born in Canada and fully 50% of those in the Toronto area are foreign-born.

Because of this good fortune, Ontario has often just assumed that people from around the world will keep coming here — and settling, integrating and staying.

But that may be changing. European countries and Australia are now much more open to immigrants than they once were. Traditional source countries for Canada, like India, increasingly have more economic opportunities than they once had. Countries are now competing with one another to attract immigrant populations, particularly highly skilled immigrants, in order to fill labour market shortages.

And more immigrants are choosing to settle in Western Canada than previously. Whereas Ontario once attracted well over half of the immigrants to Canada, it now attracts just over 40% — more in line with its share of the population.

Ontario’s ability to attract immigrants can no longer be taken for granted. New immigrants can and will choose to settle elsewhere — or leave –if they see more opportunity in another province or country. Recently, the economic performance of newcomers has been weaker than with previous generations of immigrants. All Canadians have an interest in reversing this trend.

The Canada-Ontario Immigration Agreement (COIA), signed in 2005, will come up for renewal next year. Governments will soon begin to negotiate the terms of an enhanced agreement.

The original agreement was a good first step. Settlement services are now better funded and co-ordinated among different levels of government, and the settlement sector has become more professional. However, we need to do better if Ontario is to continue to attract and retain the people it needs, and if newcomers are to achieve the quality of life that they expect from their new home.

The Mowat Centre has just completed a series of studies on federal-provincial immigration agreements, and we have a number of suggestions.

As a first principle, the federal government has to spend the money that it promises. In the first agreement, the federal government promised a cumulative total of $920-million in new investments by 2009-2010. Yet, by April 1, 2009, $407-million of the $600-million designated for the first four years of COIA had been spent.

More importantly, one needs to make integration services work better with programs delivered by provincial and municipal governments. Integration services cannot be delivered in silos. They will be much more effective if we take advantage of the whole range of programs in areas as diverse as sport and recreation, early childhood education, family counseling, housing, employment and community mental health, not to mention all of the various services offered through the provincially run education system that connect with children.

This means doing in Ontario what the federal government has done in Quebec, Manitoba and B.C.: allowing the provincial and municipal governments the power to introduce and manage more flexible programs for newcomers. It is time the federal government treated Ontario in the same way as these other provinces and devolved programming to the provincial level. In exchange, the province must commit to spending the money on services for newcomers and give the federal government appropriate credit for its spending.

The federal government would then be free to focus, through Citizenship and Immigration Canada, on its primary responsibilities: selecting immigrants to Canada, processing their applications quickly, giving fair and timely decisions on immigration and refugee issues and choosing newcomers to Canada who can play a role in nation-building.

By devolving immigration settlement services to the provinces, the federal government can build a stronger Canada — and help newcomers better adjust to their new country.

Matthew Mendelsohn is a former deputy minister in the government of Ontario and the founding director of the Mowat Centre at the University of Toronto. The immigration research findings will be presented at a public panel discussion today at U of T. For more information, visit


Reference: National Post