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The pretense that Canada’s immigration system isn’t racist persists

Canada's immigration system is fundamentally based on exploitation of racialized workers.

June 29, 2023

2-minute read

Since the establishment of Canada’s Comprehensive Ranking System in 1967, Canadian immigration has been framed as an embrace of multiculturalism.

Immigrants are no longer selected for their proximity to a “white British ideal,” but, rather, for their ability to mobilize their skills, training, and capacity in service of the Canadian economy, regardless of who they are or where they come from.

Canada, in turn, has positioned itself as an inclusive society, welcoming of all people. This article challenges immigration rhetoric that overstates the capacity of contemporary Canadian society to welcome migrant-newcomers in socially just ways.

Under neoliberalism, meaningful inclusion is rendered less possible as newcomers find themselves consistently relegated to low-wage, precarious employment—despite status and time spent in Canada.

Confronted with a patchwork of programs, immigration applicants to Canada are granted entry according to skill level, educational attainment, employment experience, language proficiency, and age.

Broadly, we can point to two “types” of migrant newcomers. Those afforded permanent residency prior to arrival and those who arrive with temporary residency. The latter includes “high-” and “low-” skilled workers, international students, and “high skilled” refugee claimants and Canadian-educated migrants more eligible for eventual permanent residency relative to those regarded as “low skilled.”

Consistent with this logic, migrant self-sufficiency and an ability to contribute to the Canadian economy are prioritized in determining who can stay and under what conditions. Economic self-sufficiency, however, in the manner celebrated by Canada’s immigration apparatus, is largely dependent on meaningful inclusion.

Yet this is not what most immigrants encounter in Canada. Instead, they arrive to a context determined by the legacies of settler colonialism, the stratifying logics of racialized capitalism, and exclusionary labour markets.

Evidenced in the experiences of “high-skilled” permanent residents is the elusiveness of meaningful welcome and inclusion, the persistence of a strategic use of immigration by the state in service of capitalist political economy, and the limits of immigration policy predicated on multicultural ideals.

Indeed, many newcomers arrive through programs that prioritize “skill” only to find themselves stuck in workplaces where those skills are underutilized, if used at all. Others actively “deskill” or downplay training and education acquired in the country of origin to secure employment in sectors increasingly eschewed by Canadian workers.

Employer-supported transition to permanent residency for temporary migrants also offers important illustration. In Nova Scotia, like elsewhere in Canada, temporary migrants aim to position themselves favourably with their employers. This is because where full-time, permanent employment is possible, employers can facilitate permanent residency through the province’s nominee program or the federally managed Atlantic Immigration Program.

While remedying some of the more exploitative tendencies of temporary foreign worker programs, these pathways allow employers to recruit and retain workers who are likely to remain confined to precarious, low-wage work, despite the mobility rights afforded to them once they secure permanent residency.

Capital—embodied here by employers—produces and reproduces a population conducive to their own objectives of accumulation in the short- and long-term.

These dynamics are not new, nor are the ideas that animate them.

Following the 1881 Colonization Company Act, which aimed to stimulate westward expansion, small, often inexperienced companies became key players in Canadian expansion and immigration.

At the onset of formalized, state-managed immigration in Canada, private interests were central to determining eligibility criteria and selecting new arrivals.

The tropes in need of investigation are not “simply” those of neoliberalism. They are reflected across the totality of the Canadian state’s nation-building project via immigration since confederation.

What is novel, however, is neoliberalism’s self-purported acceptance of multiculturalism. While earlier examples of exploitative, extractive, and dispossessing immigration regimes pursued explicitly racist objectives, the contemporary regime is reliant on state-driven narratives of multiculturalism that celebrate cultural plurality. At the same it, flattens socially constituted difference, obscures the reality of racism, and denies (wholesale) the ways in which racialized market stratification is a cornerstone of Canadian political economy.

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