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PM wants Canada to open its doors

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OTTAWA — The federal government reacted to a census showing an aging Canadian population with a suggested remedy: more immigration.

Both Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and Immigration Minister Denis Coderre reached back to reaffirm an old promise from the Liberals’ 1993 Red Book, to increase annual immigration levels to 1 per cent of the population — about 300,000 a year.

“We see that the population is not growing as fast as it should. And it’s why we have a very open immigration policy,” Mr. Chrétien said after a cabinet meeting yesterday. “And we’re working to reform it because we do not achieve as many immigrants as we would like to have in the Canadian economy.

“We have a goal of 1 per cent a year and we never manage to do that.”

Mr. Chrétien said Mr. Coderre is working to streamline the immigration system to process applications faster, to bring more people in.

Mr. Coderre said that plan will be a “major issue for the fall” — including striking an agreement with the provinces to spread new arrivals outside the major cities and to ensure that foreign professional qualifications for people such as doctors and nurses are recognized in order that labour shortages can be filled.

“We’ve got to have a mutual agreement for skilled workers within every region of the country,” he said. “But we are totally dedicated to having new immigrants and more skilled workers in our country.”

The prescription for the aging population provoked skepticism from immigration lawyers, who complained bitterly that a new immigrant-selection system unveiled last month will lower the numbers, not increase them.

In addition, economists differ on whether expanded immigration can really remedy the problems of a shrinking labour force paying taxes while a bubble of older Canadians live on pensions and use more social services such as medicare.

Mr. Coderre said that he believes Canada will face a “deficit” of one million skilled workers in five years — a more dramatic forecast than that of the Conference Board of Canada, which predicts the same shortfall by 2020.

Ben Trister, chairman of the Canadian Bar Association’s immigration section, said the problem is real. “But we believe the current system is going to bring in less immigrants, not more.”

The 1-per-cent goal is official government policy, but on paper only: Canada’s current target of 210,000 to 235,000 immigrants this year is far below the target, and no plan has been developed to reach the higher level.