The Need for a Longer Term Perspective on Immigration, Citizenship and Multiculturalism


Image credit: MCpl Genevieve Lapointe, Canadian Forces Combat Camera, Canadian Armed Forces Photo


by Andrew Griffith
September 8, 2021

The election is unlikely to provide thoughtful and open discussion of immigration, citizenship and multiculturalism, as the major parties will be more focused on messaging for their base and those they wish to win over.

Yet issues related to immigration, citizenship and multiculturalism are central to Canada’s continued prospects. While Canada by all measures has been more successful than most countries in building a diverse yet integrated society, the country remains a work in progress with ongoing disparities in economic, social and political outcomes.

Canada has changed dramatically. Source countries have shifted from Europe, 61.6 per cent of recent immigrants in 1971 compared to 11.6 per cent in 2016. Christian religious affiliation declined from 78 per cent of immigrants who arrived prior to 1971 to 47.5 per cent for those who arrived between 2006-11, with one-third of those arriving 2001-11 identifying as Muslim, Hindu, Sikh or Buddhist. LGBTQ issues were not discussed in the 1960s. More Canadians have complex, mixed identities, reflecting this increased diversity within and between different groups.

An independent commission, akin to previous royal commissions, would provide the basis and time for more in-depth analysis and discussion of immigration and related programs.

Some of the issues that a commission should review include:

Current arguments in favour of large-scale immigration are generally based on demographics and an aging population. Yet immigration only has a limited effect on aging, as immigrants themselves age and their fertility rates tend to decline.

The business community favours increased immigration as a larger population means more consumers and a larger economy. However, it is not the economy’s size that matters but the per capita GDP and productivity, where Canada continues to struggle.

Current discussions and debates over levels (the number of new immigrants) and mix (the balance between economic, family and refugee categories and the classes within each category) focus more on short-term interests. COVID-19 highlighted the role of lower paid essential workers and thus calls for more inclusive pathways to permanent residency for temporary workers. A longer term perspective would need to address the expected impact of automation and AI on higher and lower skilled immigrants.

There are currently about 100 immigration programs, making it harder for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) to manage and harder for potential immigrants to navigate the system. While of benefit to immigration lawyers and consultants, a review would provide an opportunity to simplify programs to the benefit of IRCC and potential immigrants alike, rather than addressing the complexity through modernization of IRCC’s IT infrastructure.

A commission would highlight current weaknesses in the citizenship program: declining naturalization rates, limited data sets, lack of a meaningful performance standard, the need for citizenship education for less educated immigrants and the continuing impact of high fees.

Given the ongoing impact of immigration on increasing Canada’s diversity, a commission would provide the needed opportunity for a more fundamental re-examination of multiculturalism, racism and discrimination in light of persistent differences in outcomes and increased incidents of discrimination and hate.

It would need to take a broad intersectional lens, not looking at individual groups in isolation but on the relationships among gender, religion, sexual orientation, ethnic ancestry, mixed identities and class. It would have to look at minorities and majorities in each group and the degrees of inclusion and exclusion within and among them. And it would obviously need to include Indigenous peoples, given the greater disparities they face.

A commission would also need to look at bias, discrimination and racism within and among the various groups. Rather than looking at these issues with respect to the different white ethnic groups and the other groups, it needs to look at intra-visible minority and Indigenous peoples, breaking away from the simplistic dichotomy that is no longer sufficient given Canada’s diversity.

A commission would need a broad mandate that includes research, independent studies and public consultations on barriers to inclusion for immigrants, visible minorities and other groups. We have more than enough research and data from sociologists, political scientists and economists regarding different groups’ socioeconomic, education and health disparities. We need more interdisciplinary research and analysis by social psychologists, neuroscientists and policy-makers on how bias and prejudice form, which groups are most vulnerable and why, and what are the most effective ways to counter prejudice, discrimination and hate.

For all issues, consultations would also need to go beyond the normal advocacy groups and include the more diverse and marginal voices to help break down the silos and identify commonalities. This would recognize that immigration and diversity affect Canadians in different ways, depending in part on their socioeconomic status, workplace and education. And while not without risk, consultations need to include individuals and groups who have some discomfort with increased diversity or have been negatively affected by immigration.

Consultations and deliberations would need to focus on practical solutions and approaches to address these longer term challenges, ones that can be implemented by governments and organizations, and where progress can be tracked, measured and reported on. Tracking of Truth and Reconciliation Commission calls to action provides a model.

As an election is an imperfect time “to discuss serious issues,” a commission with a longer-term perspective would provide the basis for the more fundamental review required to improve the  economic, social and political integration of all groups necessary to a more inclusive Canada.

About the Author

Andrew Griffith is the author of “Because it’s 2015…” Implementing Diversity and InclusionMulticulturalism in Canada: Evidence and Anecdote and Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias: Resetting Citizenship and Multiculturalism and is a regular media commentator and blogger (Multiculturalism Meanderings). He is the former director general for Citizenship and Multiculturalism, has worked for a variety of government departments in Canada and abroad and is a fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and Environics Institute. 



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