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Immigration the best gift Canadians can give

I remember blindly following my friends into Grade 8 shop class. Rather quickly, I found I lacked any skill handling heavy machinery to cut pipes or bend metals.
In this Nov. 10, 2011 photo, a Chinese miner stands in a coal mine in Qujing city. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP

I remember blindly following my friends into Grade 8 shop class. Rather quickly, I found I lacked any skill handling heavy machinery to cut pipes or bend metals. My parents, like so many others across Canada, steered me away from a career in the trades.

The Canadian government has just announced the introduction of a special visa category to attract foreign workers qualified in the skilled trades. Beginning this year, Canada hopes to attract as many as 3,000 new immigrants on an annual basis under the new category. And many of them will be offered a job before they arrive.

The West Bank, Jerusalem, Amman, Istanbul, Marseille and Tunis were familiar places to me last year. I have been working with the World Bank, the International Organization for Migration and Canadian embassies on programs to speed up the entry of foreign workers into Canada.

If managed wisely, migration can help industrial countries like Canada address specific sectoral constraints and social challenges presented by aging populations. Developing countries gain enormous benefits — for the migrants who depart, but also for their families left behind through remittances and diaspora investment.

A visa, therefore, can be a powerful tool for development.

And having a job is central to an individual's personal and economic development, no matter where in the world they live.

At the end of 2012, I returned to metal shop, but this time in a very different setting. I was accompanied by employers from Canada’s mining, oil and gas industries who had travelled across the world to recruit skilled young Tunisians to fill labour shortages in the Canadian economy.

Tunisia was the first country to wake the Arab Spring, breaking free from decades of dictatorship that limited opportunity for its young men and women. But almost two years after the removal of president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, too many families still barely scrape by.

For nascent democracies such as Tunisia, full-scale development of the economy and a re-setting of industrial policy will take significant time and financial resources.

Migration as development offers a more immediate pathway to break from the cycle of economic hardship.

Tunisia has a comparative advantage in mining-related professions such as welding and pipefitting. Ongoing instability in neighbouring countries such as Libya has only increased unemployment, and has meant the return of almost 90,000 skilled Tunisian workers.

As the sparks flew in our small workshop in Tunis, it occurred to me the assessment process for these candidates took on a much greater significance than any I faced as a student. Each candidate must pass a welding test for employers based on Canadian-backed standards such as ASME IX.

The finished metal work was lined up on the shop bench for inspection. After hours of hard labour, their future is decided in 10 seconds — either a pass or fail.

As we move into another year of headlines dominated by the global financial crisis, rising debt levels and squeezed household incomes, there is one currency that remains truly Canadian: Our open-mindedness towards others. Especially to those living beyond our shores.

I believe it is the greatest gift we as Canadians can give.


Tomas Ernst is a social entrepreneur from Victoria. He has worked in the South Pacific islands and Middle East on migration programs with the World Bank.