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Canada’s Interests Demand a More Ambitious Immigration Strategy

By Lisa Lalande

During the 1993 federal election, then-Progressive Conservative leader Kim Campbell famously remarked that a federal campaign is “not the time…to get involved in a debate on very, very serious issues.” While Ms. Campbell later claimed that her comment was taken out of context, there is an unfortunate grain of truth to what she said. Elections, unfortunately, have taken on an air of theatre, with much of our collective focus on the horse race of polls and the drama of campaign events, rather than on the details – and implications – of each party’s policy commitments. It is as though we have forgotten that their respective positions on any number of issues have an impact on our standard of living, our health and well being, our national security, and Canada’s standing in the world. 

As we emerge from the pandemic, Canada is facing a series of crises that require urgent attention, from the obvious public health crisis to economic and education crises, as well as challenges to Canada’s international standing. I would add to that list a serious demographic crisis that few are taking seriously. Ms. Campbell’s comment aside, Canada can ill afford to ignore the opportunity this election presents to talk seriously about the size and growth of our population, and what that means for our long-term economic prosperity and international clout. 

Simply put, Canada is at a crossroads. In the next 15 years, seniors are expected to make up approximately 25% of our population, and Statistics Canada estimates that by 2068, the number of dependents for every 100 Canadians of working age could be more than 70. At the same time, our fertility rate is dropping, with Stats Canada reporting that our birth rate is at its lowest in over 100 years due to Covid-19. Combined, these statistics point to a future in which Canada simply does not have the human resources, the tax base or the economic means to sustain the quality of life Canadians expect or advance our broader social, environmental and economic ambitions. Recognizing the problem our shifting demographics presents, Century Initiative has set a target of 100 million people in Canada by the year 2100. The specific number is less important than the need to set a bold target and then work toward it. 

However, it will be a failure if Canada makes no concrete commitments, supported by a clear plan for achieving them, to grow our population aggressively and in a well-planned manner. The only way we can overcome this challenge and secure a more prosperous future is through a more disciplined, thoughtful approach to immigration. This won’t happen overnight. We need to build on Covid-period immigration levels annually; and we need to ensure newcomer success through the process of attracting, selecting, admitting, and settling immigrants. 

Given the obvious need, and the opportunity a smart approach to immigration represents, why are we not hearing more about this on the campaign trail? There are a few possible reasons. The pandemic, for one, has focused our collective attention on the immediate need for a plan to facilitate our short-term social and economic recovery. Immigration can also be a polarizing issue, especially true in recent years with the rise of populist and nationalist movements.

However, even for the bulk of Canadians who do not hold xenophobic or nationalist views, the prospect of increased immigration can raise concerns linked to the country’s deepening housing affordability crisis, the availability of quality jobs, and environmental sustainability. The path of population growth through immigration must be designed specifically with a commitment to grow well, to building shared prosperity for those who already call Canada their home and those who will join us. If we fail to do this, it could potentially lead to political reaction and a reduction in immigration which we simply cannot afford to have happen. 

And we should not focus only on the domestic impacts. Canada’s place in the world will also be influenced by the size of our population and, in turn, our economy. Not only does a larger population contribute to increasing Canada’s economic clout, it also contributes to a more diverse country, and it can help to fuel innovation and entrepreneurship.  A decline in immigration will cut Canada off at its knees by limiting our economic growth, our potential and, ultimately, our voice on the world stage.

To be fair, the parties have not been completely silent on the topic of immigration. Each of the major federal parties has made campaign promises related to immigration, and each seems to recognize the important contribution immigrants make to our economy and to our social fabric. Immigration should not be a partisan issue. Surely, we can all agree that future generations of Canadians should experience the same quality of life we currently enjoy. We have a real and increasingly pressing need to get serious about our approach to ramping up the number of newcomers we attract to this country. That means we must move beyond vague, feel good campaign statements and focus on concrete actions, tied to measurable outcomes, to attract and retain the immigrants Canada needs. 

Unfortunately, climate change may force us to focus more intently on the issue sooner rather than later. As the climate emergency makes vast tracts of the globe uninhabitable, Canada will need a strategy for how we will help the world respond to the needs of millions of climate migrants fleeing the impact of climate change in search of new homes and new opportunities. A forward-thinking country would be considering today how this new class of migrants can play a role in tomorrow’s economy. We would also seize the opportunity this looming crisis presents for Canada to demonstrate real leadership on what will almost certainly be one of the greatest threats and challenges to the global community.

If we start thinking now about how to integrate climate modeling and forecasts of climate migration into our domestic demographic and economic modeling, we have an opportunity not just to help respond to what will be a humanitarian crisis, but to turn that crisis into a social and economic positive for Canada. For instance, as our climate changes we may require new agricultural or irrigation techniques that are already being used in countries of the global south. Recognizing that means we can start planning today for how we might structure Canada’s response to tomorrow’s climate crises in a manner that is less reactive and more strategic, with our country’s long-term interests and moral responsibility at the forefront of our decisions. 

Our need to think strategically and for the long term is becoming increasingly more imperative as the international context is shifting – and at a rapid pace. A stable, western, liberal-dominated order is not guaranteed. This means, Canada must learn how to better navigate uncertain global waters.

An aggressive and well-planned immigration approach can help us attract the best and the brightest talent from around the world. This can drive innovation, especially in those areas expected to be a primary focus over the next generation – from the transition to a cleaner, greener future, to addressing the digital divide, and more. It can help build a talent base that can raise Canada’s standing on the global stage.  It will give Canada and our elected representatives a more forceful voice internationally, which can be helpful to Canada when it comes to addressing some of the world’s most significant challenges. By strengthening our position internationally, an immigration policy that fosters greater diversity may also help Canada to sidestep the rifts we are seeing, for example, between China and the US and give us a more independent voice. But first we need a strategy to build on the existing reasons that Canada remains such an attractive destination for immigrants and make sure we do not lose that advantage.   

If we get this right, a bigger and bolder Canada will be in a better position to defend our economic and national security interests and preserve our values. We can be a counter to the growing forces of nationalism and populism. It means having greater control over our social and economic destiny. The most significant obstacle in the way of our achieving these goals, however, is our willingness to rise above political short-termism so that we can focus on our longer-term well being. There is no time like an election to debate what is for Canada one “very, very serious issue.”

Lisa Lalande (@LalandeLisa) is CEO of the Century Initiative. Lisa brings with her more than 20 years of proven experience in policy research and analysis, knowledge mobilization, change management, venture philanthropy, corporate social responsibility, and marketing communications. She previously held the position of Executive Director of the Mowat Centre’s Not-for-Profit Research Hub (Mowat NFP).

Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  


Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security


Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.


Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.



Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 


Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 



Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.


Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.


Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.



Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor