Misperceptions about immigration to Canada are prevalent, and as lawyers committed to advocating for the rights of newcomers, we should be concerned. We have a responsibility to know the facts in order to effectively represent our clients and to promote wider understanding of how our immigration system is legally designed to function. As champions of the rule of law and social justice, we can play a central role in correcting the kind of common misconceptions clarified below and in combatting the prejudice that they cultivate.
Many of us do not work directly in immigration law, but immigration is often highly relevant to our work as lawyers nonetheless. At a minimum, with Ontario’s increased demographic diversity, many of our clients and colleagues are immigrants. The legal profession, more specifically, is admitting increasing numbers of foreign-trained graduates each year. In terms of the general population, illustratively, Census Canada reports that the majority – over 54 per cent – of the overall population of Toronto was born outside of Canada. While the rest of Ontario is less diverse in terms of country of origin, the trend is towards more diversity everywhere. Further, as the legal sector becomes increasingly engaged in international transactions in a globalized world economy, the relevance of immigration to our work and lives will only increase. Finally, unless we are of Indigenous heritage ourselves, all of us in Canada, ultimately, are settler immigrants.
There are three main ways in which newcomers to Canada legally gain permanent status in the country. Some are refugees, attaining legal status by process of a system that determines whether their circumstances bring them within the humanitarian duty imposed on nations by the Geneva Convention to protect refugees. Others are sponsored in by relatives, entering Canada in the family class. The most common way for immigrants to enter Canada, however, is as workers, by means of a merit-based points system that allows for the admission of educated and highly skilled persons. By far, the majority of immigrants to Canada enter as part of this last, economic class.
The internet disseminates a great deal of disinformation about Canada's immigration system. Numerous websites present false claims about how much financial support new immigrants to our country receive. Others present erroneous information about the number of immigrants coming to Canada. There is also a great deal of online misinformation about the process for seeking asylum. Some of this incorrect information is offered simply in error. Other information comes from jurisdictions other than Canada and is understood, mistakenly, by readers to apply to our context. However, still other sites are intentionally malicious. For instance, a significant amount of disinformation about immigration was circulated extensively around the time of the 2019 Canadian Federal Election.
This online disinformation is perhaps the largest contributor to widely held misperceptions about immigration to Canada. An October 2019 Angus Reid poll found that most Canadians are badly misinformed on this topic. A majority of respondents to the poll — 64 per cent — said most immigrants coming to Canada are from North Africa and the Middle East. In fact, only 12 per cent of immigrants to Canada come from those regions. In reality, the majority of Canada's immigrants hail from South and Southeast Asia. People polled got this wrong. A mere 29 per cent of those polled chose South Asia as the source of most immigrants, while 27 per cent picked Southeast Asia.
Possibly owing to the extent of the media coverage on the global refugee crisis, Canadians surveyed in the poll seriously overestimated the percentage of immigrants who are refugees. In reality, refugees make up just 15 per cent of all immigrants to Canada. However, a majority of respondents to the Angus Reid poll thought that 30 per cent of all immigrants were refugees. Respondents also greatly underestimated the percentage of newcomers to Canada entering as economic immigrants by qualifying through a rigorous “points” system to work in Canada.
Misunderstandings about immigration, particularly where it leads Canadians to overlook the economic and cultural contributions newcomers bring, can be at the root of biases and can unfortunately motivate discriminatory behaviours.
From the perspective of my personal role in promoting diversity and inclusion in my firm, I cannot overemphasize how important it is for us all to nudge ourselves and others away from stereotypical assumptions, unconscious biases, and intentionally discriminatory behaviours. These misguided beliefs cause great harm to individuals and undermine the respectful multicultural society we value so highly in Canada.
By re-examining our own ingrained attitudes and adjusting our behaviour accordingly, and by remaining vocal enough about Canadian immigration facts to drown out destructive fiction, we can make a difference in nurturing diverse, collaborative workplaces and inclusive and innovative communities.
Canadian Immigration Information
Immigration is a complex and ever-evolving area of law. For accurate, up-to-date information on Canadian immigration, please visit official government sites, such as:
Government of Canada Statistics and Reports:
Statistics Canada: Immigration and Ethno-Cultural Diversity
2018 Annual Report to Parliament on Immigration:
About the Author
Rebecca Bromwich is manager, diversity and inclusion, at Gowling WLG, and a member of the OBA’s Equality Committee.