Maxime Bernier’s false claim about Canada’s ‘subsidized’ immigrants

As part of our federal election coverage, CBC News is assessing the truthfulness and accuracy of statements made by politicians and their parties. 

The Claim: “Canadians are a compassionate people and we should be. But at what cost? Are Canadians happy to subsidize 74 per cent of our current immigrants?”

— Maxime Bernier, leader of the People’s Party of Canada, outlining his position on immigration and multiculturalism during a speech in Mississauga, Ont., Wednesday night.

The Facts:

Bernier’s hour-long speech centred on his pledge to cut immigration levels by more than half — to somewhere between 100,000 and 150,000 people per year, depending on “economic and other circumstances” — and the various reasons why he believes such a reduction is necessary.

He cited perceived threats to Canada’s identity and common culture, but the heart of his argument was made up of claims that immigrants bring more costs than benefits to this country.

Bernier said immigrants generally earn less than Canadian-born workers and pay a lower amount of tax, but consume almost as much in government services as everyone else. And as proof, he referred to a 2011 study from the Fraser Institute (co-authored by economist and former Reform Party MP Herb Grubel) that put the net “cost” to the country at $6,051 per immigrant, estimating an annual burden of $16 billion to $24 billion.

The People’s Party founder went on to crunch some numbers of his own, noting that 55 per cent of immigrants to Canada are “economic class” admissions — 159,262 people in 2017, according to the latest government figures — but that almost half in that category were spouses and dependents. Per Bernier, that means “only 26 per cent of all the people who come to Canada every year actually fulfil our economic needs,” and that the remainder are “dependents” who “may not master any of our official languages, or are too young or too old to work.”

Bernier’s suggestion that 74 per cent of immigrants are somehow getting a subsidized ride is patently false, and appears to rely on cherry-picked numbers and some decidedly old-school assumptions.

Let’s start with the Fraser Institute study, which itself was based on 2006 census data and a sample of tax filing information for immigrants between 1987 and 2004. As the authors note, “there is no statistical information available to allow direct accounting” for how immigrants or any other demographic group benefit from social programs and other, even broader, categories of government spending. So what they did was make assumptions based on the “fragmentary evidence” that did exist at the time.

Immigrants, they suggest, consume more than their fair share of education, housing and employment spending, and less of the money devoted to the “protection of people and property.” And for everything else — recreation and culture, regional planning, industrial development, foreign affairs, etc. — they concluded that everyone derives an equal benefit. A rather imprecise way to arrive at such an exact dollar figure.

Bernier’s 26 per cent claim also seems awfully shaky, starting with his implicit suggestion that all of those economic class families consist of a single breadwinner, or that none of their dependents intend to get a job.

In 2017, Canada also admitted 82,740 people under the family reunification category — each of whom was sponsored by a current citizen or landed immigrant who committed to providing for their needs for between three and 20 years. The remaining 44,747 people who became landed immigrants that year were refugees, had been granted asylum, or accepted on humanitarian or compassionate grounds. And nothing prevents them from seeking work.

Last winter, Statistics Canada published a detailed report on labour trends among immigrants that found immigrants were responsible for two-thirds of all national employment gains in 2016-17, and that the gap between immigrants and native-born Canadians is narrowing.

The unemployment rate for “core-aged” immigrants — the 25- to 54-year-olds who make up the bulk of Canada’s workforce — dipped to 6.4 per cent in 2017, the lowest rate in 12 years. The jobless rate for those who had been in the country for less than five years was higher — 9.6 per cent — but that difference fades over time, and those who arrived more than a decade ago had basically the same unemployment rate as Canadian-born workers, 5.6 per cent compared to 5.0 per cent.

And in some cases, immigrants are doing better. The unemployment rate for immigrant men who have been in the country for between five and 10 years was 4.8 per cent, lower than the Canadian-born male average of 5.6 per cent. And immigrants from the Philippines — the second-biggest source country in 2017 — had an overall unemployment rate of 3.6 per cent, 1.4 per cent below the Canadian-born rate.

Another recent Statistics Canada survey on the income and mobility of immigrants, based on 2016 tax data, found that immigrants admitted to Canada the year before had the highest entry wages of any cohort on record, with a median income of $25,400. And overall, the earnings of immigrants continue to rise the longer they have been in the country. For example, 2006 arrivals had a median wage of $19,100 a year later, which increased to $25,700 in 2011, and then $31,700 in 2017.

Data from the 2016 census shows a significant income gap between immigrants and other Canadians: the average employment earnings of someone who has been in the country for under five years was $33,077 — $13,941 less than for the average native-born Canadian. But after a decade, the difference shrinks to just under $4,900, and immigrants who have been in Canada for 25 years or more surpass the Canadian-born average by almost $5,500.

Overall, there were 7.843 million landed immigrants in Canada in 2017 — 25 per cent of the population. The vast majority of them — 5.48 million — have been here for more than a decade, which means they are likely working, and earning, almost exactly as much as other Canadians.

And given the fact that 53 per cent of all immigrants are in that “core” 25-54 working-age group, compared to 48 per cent of the Canadian-born population, they might well be carrying more than their share of the load — making Canada both younger and more prosperous.

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