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Four people hold their face masks at their chins so the camera can see them smile.

Canada welcomed nearly 25,000 immigrants in January 2021— most since last February

Kareem El-Assal

Shelby Thevenot

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Four people hold their face masks at their chins so the camera can see them smile.

Canada’s immigration levels are starting to recover.

New Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) data show that the country welcomed about 24,665 new permanent residents in January 2021. This is comparable to Canada’s monthly intake prior to the pandemic. In fact, it is the strongest month for Canadian immigration since February 2020.

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Prior to the pandemic, Canada welcomed between 25,000 and 35,000 new immigrants per month.

There is a significant seasonal component to Canadian immigration. Newcomer arrivals are the strongest during the spring and summer months and taper off towards the end of each calendar year. Reasons for this include the warmer weather making the settlement process easier, as well as families looking to settle in Canada by the end of the summer holidays — Canada’s school year and work schedule generally resume normal activity each September.

This typical state of affairs was interrupted abruptly by the travel restrictions Canada was compelled to implement effective March 18 of last year as it sought to contain the spread of the coronavirus. Since then, immigration levels have remained extremely weak and Canada was not able to surpass 20,000 new arrivals in a month until January of this year.

Only 184,370 new immigrants came to Canada in 2020, falling way short of IRCC’s goal of 341,000. This was the weakest year for Canadian immigration since 1998. To make up for the shortage, Canada’s immigration minister, Marco Mendicino, announced that Canada would welcome 401,000 new permanent residents in 2021. Should Canada achieve this goal, it will be tied for the highest level of immigration in the country’s history— the current record stands at 401,000 immigrant arrivals in 1913.

The strong start to this year suggests Canada is in good position to achieve its ambitious immigration goal by the end of this year. If seasonal newcomer arrival patterns normalize, we can expect immigration to eventually surpass 35,000 monthly landings by the summer.

Moreover, we should see a significant spike in permanent residence landings by the end of the year due to the recent historic Express Entry draw held by IRCC on February 13. It usually takes at least nine months between an individual being invited for permanent residence under Express Entry and then formally completing the landing process. This spike should be recorded by November or December.

In recent months, Mendicino and IRCC have communicated a temporary shift in strategy. IRCC will aim to transition as many people currently residing in Canada to permanent residence in order to meet their 401,000 immigrant target.

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In addition to public comments made by Mendicino, a number of major actions by IRCC demonstrates the Canadian government’s commitment to this temporary shift in strategy. Whereas IRCC was inviting candidates from all over the world, including Federal Skilled Worker Program (FSWP) candidates to apply for permanent residence towards the end of 2020, it is now focusing on inviting candidates most likely to be in Canada. Since the start of this year, Express Entry draws have only invited Provincial Nominee Program (PNP) and Canadian Experience Class (CEC) candidates.

On February 13, IRCC held by far the largest Express Entry draw in history when it invited 27,332 CEC candidates to apply for permanent residence. This draw was nearly six times larger than the previous record.

Express Entry is the main way Canada welcomes skilled workers to immigrate to the country. Generally speaking, over half of invitees under Express Entry tend to fall under the FSWP while PNP and CEC candidates account for the minority. This has been reversed during the pandemic. Following the February 13th draw, IRCC explained that it estimates some 90 per cent of CEC candidates are living in Canada right now.

Given the nature of the ongoing travel restrictions, it is likely that most of those who officially became permanent residents in January were also individuals who have been in Canada throughout the pandemic. Canada has a large population of temporary foreign workers and international students who are provided with an advantage when applying to the country’s over 100 different skilled worker immigration programs. These programs tend to reward candidates who have Canadian work experience and education. This is a function of Statistics Canada research showing that Canadian experience is an excellent predictor of an immigrant’s success in the labour market.

Looking ahead, IRCC has stated it will resume welcoming skilled workers from abroad once the pandemic situation has improved. For now, many skilled workers who have received approval to immigrate to Canada are unable to enter the country due to travel restrictions.

While it remains difficult to predict the future, recent developments provide hope that the worst of the pandemic is behind us. Daily case counts have fallen in Canada since January, a function of both stay-at-home orders as well as an increase in vaccine distribution. Down south, the United States is now administering over two million vaccine dosages per day. Vaccine rollouts are also moving at a quicker rate globally. Should such positive trends continue, Canada may be in a better position to strongly consider relaxing its travel restrictions later this year.

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