Canada’s Migration Policy Model

˙ Voces

“It needs to be more widely understood that state sovereignty is not undermined when states develop migration management laws and practices that protect the rights of both regular and irregular migrants within their territory. In fact, the reverse is the case.”

Laura Thompson – Deputy Director General, International Organization for Migration

The challenge of immigration policy is part of any major global debate right now, from the US elections in the Western Hemisphere to the Brexit debate in Europe. Deciding who comes, who stays, and who is eligible for citizenship are all part of the various ways a country exercises its sovereignty. It is at the core of being a nation to determine who is part of that nation. There is no golden rule regarding migration, and each country has its own circumstances, needs, and priorities—but among the various examples of successful migration policies, Canada seems to be doing particularly well.  

Developing policies that balance the multiple issues of inclusion, globalization, competitiveness, and humanitarian concerns is not an easy task. It becomes even harder in the context of incendiary anti-migration rhetoric in Europe and North America that has captured public attention by attacking immigration, scaremongering, and making up facts.

Canada benefits from historical and political starting points that have led to immigrants and minorities integrating more successfully compared to other countries (Kymlicka, 2009).  Here is a broad picture of some key characteristics of Canada’s approach to recent immigration that may help inform policy on other latitudes.


Canada has the highest foreign-born population among the G8 countries. From 2006 to 2011 (the most recent census comparison), almost 1,163,000 new immigrants arrived in Canada, bringing the total foreign-born population to 6.8 million, or 20.6% of the total population.

Canada prides itself on a long history of successfully integrating migrants into its country. A very high percentage of this migration arrives through legal channels, allowing for more effective integration and community engagement. Studies among Canadian immigrants show for example how they tend to give more to charity than other populations, and their emotional health improves when they are able to send money home. With the Liberals arriving to power last year, the diversity of Canadians’ ethnic roots of  was especially celebrated with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s “cabinet that looks like Canada,” or as he himself described it during a recent visit to Washington DC: “I have more Sikhs in my cabinet than Modi does.”

A first lesson on how Canadians address migration can be drawn from Canada’s recent election campaign. Former PM Stephen Harper ordered public-opinion polls indicating that most Canadians thought women should be required to remove niqabs or burkas during citizenship ceremonies, bringing this up as a central topic during his campaign. The public response was not what he expected, as his exaggerated focus on the issue was actually considered by many a direct insult to Canadians’ self-perception as a welcoming nation. Harper’s campaign, during the most recent elections, was accused of using this rhetoric of banning niqabs and burkas to deviate attention from more relevant issues (For details: #BarbaricCulturalPractices). 


Another interesting lesson, although more operational, is Canada’s immigration “point system” in admittance procedures for new arrivals to the country. The system, praised and emulated across the globe since its implementation, has also allowed Canada to make changes to immigration policies in a relatively smooth way. 

Since 1967, Canada has utilized a point system with the objective of eliminating prejudice and discrimination in applicant acceptances by focusing on specific, merit-based personal characteristics rather than inherent features such as race or country of origin. Until 2015, it awarded half of the points on education and language skills and the remaining half on age, work experience, job offers, and skill transferability.

More recently, Canada has sought, like other countries, to promote migration that strengthens the labor force and responds to the increasingly globalized nature of labor. In 2015, Harper’s government launched the Express Entry program with the goal of attracting more skilled migrants. Express Entry reviews applicants with the highest probable economic outcome first, rather than in the order they are submitted. Since 2015, half of all points are awarded for a job offer. The system has also cut wait time in half: to six months or less from the previous 12-14 month processing period.

The implementation of the new point system has led to a shift in migrant populations, with more migrants now coming of Asian, as opposed to European, origin. It also made Canada, according to a The Economist article, “no country for old men,” as applicants in their 20s to the country’s skilled-workers immigration system receive maximum points for age.

The new awarding of points scheme is also now under revision, especially regarding the language requisites, as declared by Immigration Minister McCallum. He cites that though the language requirement policy change put in place in 2015 may be helpful to ensure labor, it also presents barriers to other types of migration and especially to immigration on grounds of family reunification.

From a practical point of view, Canada’s point system allows for quick changes; policy implementations may be quicker and easier to monitor and fine-tune. Instead of changing entire procedures, lawmakers are able to modify the weight that each parameter in the immigration application process– namely language, education or experience – has.

There is also the issue of illegal migration to Canada and how it is addressed. Although most migration into the country occurs through legal and documented channels, the number of undocumented migrant workers currently living in Canada is somewhere between 200,000 and 500,000 according to estimates, with many of these migrants coming from Portugal or Latin America. In a recent case, Ottawa ruled out amnesty for undocumented workers on the grounds that it would be unfair to those applying to legally migrate to the country. Amnesty is a global issue; the same argument used in Ottawa was echoed in US Republican presidential debates last year, with various candidates opposing amnesty for undocumented migrants. Similar debates take place in other latitudes, in Britain and beyond.

The anti-amnesty argument is relevant since the opposition is not simply led by the rejection of migration, but by the desire for fairness and equal adherence to the rules. A look at public opinion on this issue is interesting, as the main argument for opposing amnesty is the supposed unfairness of so-called“queue-jumping.” A recent poll showed that “not following the rules or steps” is what most Canadians considered unjust, and the majority believes this should be grounds for deporting migrants regardless of their background, education, or the circumstances under which they first came to the country.

That said, model practices should not be regarded as a sign of Canada’s borders being open to all. Far from so, their  temporary residents’ visa refusal rate was 18% in 2015, higher than the 16% comparable rate in the US during the same year (non-immigrant visa refusal excluding tourism visas.)*

Also, deportations are actively enforced (in 2013 their number was over 15,000) and Canadian Law does penalize companies hiring undocumented workers, although this is not commonly enforced.

A final migration issue present in Canadian and world-wide debates vis-à-vis immigration: Syrian refugees. Canada’s plan for receiving Syrian refugees has received praise and been quoted as a good and innovative model by some. To help mitigate the current Syrian refugee crisis, the Canadian government put in place an innovative system in which private citizens may come together and sponsor refugees. This method was put in place with the objective of welcoming the refugees and “protecting the health and safety of Canadians.” They have been working with the UN Refugee Agency and organized citizens to accept refugees. The model for refugee sponsorship is similar to that for sponsoring a relative, with the sponsor providing financial and emotional support for the immigrating party for at least a year.

The importance and strength of Canada’s refugee integration mechanism lies in the shared responsibility between government and citizens. The program allows those interested in supporting refugees to have an opportunity to participate, in cooperation with the government, through sponsoring a refugee or donating what they can.

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