September marks six months since the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic of COVID-19. We’re using this milestone to take stock of the policy response so far and consider next steps as Canada continues to move from reaction to rebuilding. As part of this, First Policy Response is speaking to several policy experts to gather their thoughts on the key policy developments of these past six months, and what they think our next priorities should be.

This interview with Senator Ratna Omidvar, an independent senator for Ontario, is part of a series of interview transcripts. You can read the full series here. This transcript has been edited for clarity. 


First Policy Response: So far, what has COVID-19 taught us about immigration to Canada and the role that immigrants play in this country?

Sen. Ratna Omidvar: I think the last six months have taught us that our immigration insights have been overly influenced by what I call our addiction to skilled workers. The last six months have shown us that essential workers are, in fact, the ones who kept us safe, secure and fed in many ways. And these are not the ones we seem to have paid any attention to. I’ve always believed that the economy functions in many different ways. It’s not made up of just one kind of labour, but many different kinds of components go into it.

So I think we have to understand immigration a little differently – not completely differently because immigration will always be an economic driver for our country, but now we also need to think of immigration as a health and safety driver of our society. And that is all caught up in the economy.

I’m talking about people at the bottom of the scale. I’m talking about migrant workers, of course; about personal care support workers, who are not given permanent jobs but go from site to site, possibly endangering themselves and their patients. I’m talking about the people who stock the shelves in grocery stores and continue to sell products to us. So all of this has brought into sharp relief, I believe, the need to have a serious rethink, and retool – if not transform – parts of our immigration program. In the main, I believe it works fairly well, [even though] there are issues on all sides. But we need to rethink immigration as one part of the strategy towards securing our health and security. We’ve actually never thought about immigration in that way.


FPR: Why do you think it is that we haven’t thought about it that way before now?

We’ve never had a crisis like this. And we’ve felt for so ever long that we are self-sufficient in health care, that our global supply chains will provide us with the equipment and the health paraphernalia that we need. The truth has been uncovered.

Sticking with immigration, the situation with migrant workers is particularly worrisome. I come at things mainly from a social justice and human rights perspective, but I also understand that the food security of Canadians is caught up when Canadian farmers are not able to get the labour. And let’s put this mirage that Canadians will work on farms aside. That myth has also been, I think, proven wrong – we actually need migrant labourers to work the farms. But should they be migrants, per se? Or can we conceive of a way – if we think of them as essential workers – to move them along a path to permanency [permanent residency] over time? No such path exists right now.

If we are looking at self-sufficiency, then migrant labourers are part of that self-sufficiency. And I know that there are concerns about housing standards and inspections. All of those can be improved, but it doesn’t get to the root of the problem, which is the limited rights of migrant workers, as they are migrants and not immigrants.

I’d like to see the government take a more clear-eyed look at moving migrant workers [to permanency], maybe over a two-step process. I know the policy concerns around this proposal are huge – and they’re not misplaced, by the way – that if migrant workers have a route to permanency, after [they secure permanent status] they will likely transition to another job. But many other people do that, too. And [by creating a path to permanency], we secure a future supply by ensuring that in successive years, people continue to come in to fill the backstop. And those migrant workers who come and become permanent will bring their families, who may require higher integration supports, but from our history, we know that there is a narrative: “Come to Canada. Work hard. Your children will succeed.” And so this would be a short-term and a long-term strategy.

It’s really important to create, or to find a stream within the [existing] immigration programs, for what I would call nonprofessional health-care workers. These are not picked for their university educations per se, but people who become workers in long-term care homes, and in homes like mine – I have a home-care worker for my mother and I know it took her forever to get a landing; it was a very complicated process. So maybe [we need to] get rid of this language of “high skilled” and “low skilled,” because we found out that what we really need in this crisis is not just the high-skilled workers, but also the others who keep us alive on a day-to-day basis.


FPR: What do you think about what the government has done so far over the course of the pandemic to try and address some of these issues?

I have to give the government a great deal of credit for using the crisis to find solutions that would never have been acceptable before. I just referred to the announcement by [Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship] Minister [Marco] Mendcino to grant asylum-seekers who worked in the health-care crisis a path to permanency quicker – and you and I know how long it takes for refugee claimants to get their applications decided on.

But also, we know that foreign students are an incredibly essential part of our economy – $22 billion a year is pumped into our economy by foreign students. Whole towns in the Maritimes, whole universities in Canada, rely on foreign student fees to an incredible degree. So if those foreign students don’t come back, not only will those towns be [harmed], but our entire post-secondary educational system is at risk because it relies so much on foreign student fees. So we have to do something, and I again give the government credit for tweaking the program here and there to enable foreign students to come into the country, to work in different ways. But I particularly liked the proposal I read in The Globe and Mail by John Stackhouse and [Andrew Schrumm], who talked about a new proposal which would be two steps: you would get permission to study at a Canadian university and you do the first [part of the program] overseas in your home through technology, and then you would finish it on campus. They call it “Canada U.” It would require the whole Canadian university industry to get involved in developing and designing these entry-level courses. I’m not an expert on university education, but it is one of those ideas that is born out of a crisis but may actually help resolve, over the long-term, the continuing prosperity of Canadian post-secondary education.

Many of these foreign students, by the way, are the lowest-hanging fruit. If we do a good job, they will aspire to become permanent residents. And permanent residents educated in Canada with easier access to the labour market, all of this plays in our favour.


FPR: And when you say meeting our numbers, what’s the importance of that?

Oh, gosh. Most Canadians, I think, do understand the economic lift that immigrants give to our economy – some in the short term, some over the longer term. They also provide an artificial stabilization of our declining population, and the knock-on effects of stabilizing our population – not just on the economy, but our on social service, health-care service, pensions, etc. – are well-documented. So those benefits have to be kept right in front of policy-makers when they think about, how do we continue to shore up and stabilize those numbers?

Now, I’m not disputing that that may be difficult over the short term because many Canadians have lost their jobs. And there is always a nativist sentiment that arises of, “Why not me? Why them?” And that may well arise again. But I think the evidence is overwhelmingly in favour of bringing in more immigrants. We will argue about where they come from and, you know, what skills they have and what language . . . all of that can be argued out. But the fact that we need immigrants to shore up our economy is undisputed. And I don’t believe that there is any political party that disputes that, outside the one that didn’t get elected.


FPR: Have we seen Canadians’ attitudes toward immigrant workers change over the course of this pandemic? Or do you think it will change as a result of this?

Now, I’m not a pollster . . . but I believe Canadians’ appreciation of the frontline work of immigrants has heightened. They have become aware that we need them to live our daily lives. I think that has heightened an incredible amount. The minister’s [outreach] to asylum seekers, who are the least popular – and I say that advisedly because Canadians [think] they’re jumping the queue, etc. – popular sentiment was on his side when he did this. So, I would suggest there is increasing appreciation for the work that immigrants do that possibly no one else wants to do. Including migrant workers – especially migrant workers. I’m sure if there was a poll put out, people would say that migrant workers are essential to our economy and need to be protected better so that they don’t die picking the strawberries. And I’m sure agricultural farmers would also say they’re essential to our economy and we need to stabilize the workforce in the interest of Canadians.

So I think on that front, we are on new ground. What I’m not so sure of is how the economy hits Canadian workers when they lose their jobs. And as I said, a certain kind of nativism, possibly populism, may well arise, and that is something we have to watch for.


FPR: You mentioned asylum-seekers working in health care. What about the situation toward refugees and asylum-seekers during the pandemic, more generally, as the border has been closed to a lot of people coming into the country?

So we’ve technically had very few – I can’t even think of a number – because our borders have been closed. Our recent spate of asylum-seekers all came to us from the United States because the Safe Third Country Agreement allowed asylum-seekers to cross over into Canada over non-official border posts – Roxham Road [at the Quebec-New York border] being an example.  Courts have struck down that law, and the government has decided to appeal the [ruling]. The government wants to contend that the Safe Third Country Agreement is lawful and that sending anyone back from Canada to the U.S., they would be treated fairly. The appellants in the cases in the ruling clearly demonstrated they would not. Now, I don’t believe that all returned asylum seekers would be treated in one way or another, but my point of view is that we do not send people back when their personal lives will be harmed. So I’m personally a little disturbed by this decision. The federal court has said that [the agreement] is unconstitutional. This is a big issue that the government should start moving on.


FPR: In general, do you think the government needs to do more to allow refugees to be able to make claims while the border is closed to all but essential workers?

The borders are closed. And I don’t think that we should be endangering the health of Canadians by opening up the borders before it is time to do so for anyone. For anyone. That would be my position. But within the context of Safe Third Country, it becomes an issue to think of in the future when the border will be open. If we don’t have a Safe Third Country Agreement, one set of conditions would apply. If the Safe Third Country Agreement continues to apply, and the government has filed this appeal, then another set of conditions applies. We actually have a pretty robust internal claims process in Canada. The problem is the volumes, and that appears to have been to some extent resolved by the new direction and leadership at the IRB [Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada]. But the real problem is, I would say, public opinion.


FPR: So moving forward, as we’re transitioning out of the immediate reaction stage and going more toward the rebuilding stage, what do you think the government should be doing in terms of policy on immigration?

I think the government should think very seriously of expanding its lens on who is not just a skilled worker in this country, but who is an essential worker, and create pathways for entry for them, keeping that essential worker lens in mind. And that can only happen at the highest levels.

We have a speech from the throne coming. I’m hoping to see a signal in that direction in that speech from the throne, that in order to ensure that we maintain our position on immigration and meet our numbers, we will make some essential pivots in our policy. One of them being to look and search for and enable the applications of nonprofessional workers into our system the same way as we do for skilled workers. The bulk of our immigration numbers come from the skilled worker programs and the families that they bring. And I know the government is somewhat addicted to pilot programs . . . and the numbers on the [immigration] pilots are extremely limited at 2,500 [applicants] or something like that. This crisis has shown that incrementalism may not necessarily work.