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Canada’s new immigration minister said he is open to “having a conversation” on concerns raised by some economists and groups on rising immigration targets amid a housing shortage, but said he still has no plans to lower them in the near future.

Immigration Minister Marc Miller is expected to announce Canada’s annual immigration plan later this year, which provides details on the number and categories of newcomers the country will welcome in the next three years. As per the current plan, the country aims to invite 465,000 permanent residents in 2023, 485,000 in 2024 and 500,000 in 2025.

“Honestly, looking at the numbers and knowing what I know and the needs that exist in Canada, I don’t see a world in which we decrease it currently,” Miller said. “We do have to have a discussion about what the steps are and be quite measured in our approach.”

Miller replaced former immigration minister Sean Fraser as part of a major cabinet shuffle by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on July 26.

Canada experienced record population growth in 2022, comprised of more than a million permanent and temporary residents. But critics say Canada’s current immigration target could worsen an existing housing crisis and put more pressure on public services.

Stéfane Marion, chief economist at the National Bank of Canada, said in an Aug. 2 note that Ottawa’s decision to invite so many newcomers during a period when the Bank of Canada was implementing the “most aggressive monetary tightening cycle in a generation” has created a “record imbalance” between housing supply and demand.

The working-age population surged by 238,000 in the second quarter of this year — the largest quarterly increase on record — while housing starts stood at 62,000 units, the report said. Homebuilders can’t build enough new housing to keep up with demand, with the housing starts to working-age population growth ratio falling to a new low of 0.26 — half of its historical average of 0.61. The imbalance is squeezing affordability in every province, he said.

“As housing affordability pressures continue to mount across the country, we believe Ottawa should consider revising its immigration targets to allow supply to catch up with demand,” Marion said.

A report from Toronto-Dominion Bank published last week said the housing shortage could widen by an additional 500,000 units within two years if immigration continues at its current rate.

But Miller said numbers such as those don’t reflect the full picture and instead depict a “very specific subset” of arguments.

“You would have to drill down on those numbers,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that we can’t have a conversation about it. There are views and they are ones that we have to look at carefully when we are trying to build consensus as a country.”

In the long run, Miller believes Canada’s current approach to immigration can help improve its shrinking worker-to-retiree ratio, the number of working people needed through the payment of income taxes to support services for one retired person. Statistics Canada predicts the ratio will fall to about three workers for every retiree by 2030, when five million Canadians are expected to retire. In 2015, that ratio stood at about four workers for every retiree.

Bringing in skilled workers is a key component of Canada’s immigration plan, and Miller stressed that more homebuilders and medical professionals are needed to boost housing and health care. Skilled trades workers are targeted to comprise 60 per cent of the total 500,000 newcomers Canada plans to welcome by 2025, with the rest made up of family members, refugees and those looking to enter on humanitarian grounds.

But the minister said cutting down targets in any one category would mean making some “really difficult” choices.

“Do you want to reduce the number of skilled workers? Do you want to (turn) your back on people that are fleeing war? No,” Miller said. “When people say ‘let’s freeze things or reduce numbers,’ they are saying a number of things, but when you push their thinking on it, they themselves wouldn’t want to do (it).”

Some studies suggest Canadians’ support for rising immigration targets is diminishing as high interest rates and housing shortages take a toll. For example, 61 per cent of 1,500 people surveyed by Ottawa-based Abacus Data in July called the country’s immigration target “high,” and 63 per cent said immigration is having a negative impact on housing.

Miller admitted the current economic situation is challenging and said the federal government needs to ensure “people can have a roof over their heads.” But he also said blaming newcomers for those challenges is unfair.

“In every wave of migration that Canada has had, there has been a segment of folks that have blamed immigrants for taking houses, taking jobs, you name it,” Miller said. “Those are people that don’t necessarily have the best interest of immigrants at heart and we have to call that out when we see it and we won’t hesitate to do that.”


Story by: Financial Post