On several occasions in the past few months, both Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Housing Minister Steve Clark have said the Greenbelt has to be opened for development to house a growing number of families like mine.
We’re what politicians call economic immigrants — young, working families who were selected to move to Canada to boost the economy, become much-needed members of a shrinking labour force and bring down the median age of the population.
Both Canada and Ontario need and want us. Their economic models depend entirely on immigrants. According to the federal government, immigration accounts for almost 100 per cent of Canada’s labour force growth, and, in nine years, it’s projected to account for 100 per cent of Canada’s population growth. Citing a “labour shortage,” provincial Labour Minister Monte McNaughton specifically asked the federal government last year to send more immigrants Ontario’s way, and soon.
McNaughton portrayed himself as successful when an agreement to do so was signed last November. But the agreement came just weeks after Greenbelt protections were dropped, one of a number of controversial decisions that have put the Ford government under fire for slashing or weakening key environmental policies. Maybe that’s why Ford’s public justification for his development plan, known as Bill 23 or the More Homes Built Faster Act, is that the province has nowhere to put the many immigrants that want to move here.
The way the premier frames it, an influx of immigrants is forcing him to build more and quickly, despite any environmental cost.
“Out of the 500,000 people showing up to Canada, we know 60 per cent of those new Canadians — 300,000 — are going to show up to Toronto and the [Greater Toronto Area],” he told reporters on Nov. 7. That’s the day he flip flopped on his long-stated opposition on Greenbelt development, and just six days after the federal government announced ambitious new immigration targets. “Where are we going to put 300,000 people a year, almost one million people in three years?”
Clark cited the same numbers in a January interview with TVO as an illustration of why “we need to act quickly and decisively.”
In other words: if you truly want Ontario to be a place to grow (in population), you have to forgo your environment.
In setting out this simplified premise, Ford is creating an unnecessary tradeoff between immigration and the environment. He’s also skipping over a number of key facts, including McNaughton actively lobbying the federal government for more immigrants.
There’s also the fact that Ontario’s own housing task force found that zoning practices, not available land, are the crux of the housing crisis. The fact that many municipalities have already done the work to accommodate immigration targets within available land, but that this would mean favouring dense development that runs counter to Ford’s focus on single-family homes — a focus that means his plans to build won’t create enough of the right type of housing for either new immigrants or the people that already live here.
In making this tradeoff, Ford has also created a dangerous and false perception of immigrants. The majority of newcomers don’t land at Pearson airport with wads of cash and head straight to a massive house with their name on the deed. The reality is far less cinematic and lucrative.
On average, the process to immigrate to Canada costs between $15,000 and $30,000, per immigration lawyers that spoke to The Narwhal. In 2019, according to Statistics Canada, the median wage of an immigrant that had been in the country for a year was $31,900. That’s almost 18 per cent lower than the median wage of a Canadian. Even with two earners, it’s certainly not enough to buy a house in most of the province, where the average price is currently about $800,000.
Immigrants aren’t storming Ontario’s Greenbelt or other undeveloped areas begging for mansions to live in. Not only because they can’t afford it, but because they too want to live in complete communities, where they can re-establish a life, with access to all the things everyone wants: affordable housing, healthcare, education, community and access to nature.
To scapegoat immigrants, as Ford and Clark have done over the past few months, is to ignore the complicated and troubling reality: for decades, subsequent governments have relied on immigration to grow Canada but have failed to proactively and properly plan the society newcomers enter.
If the federal government is increasing demand for housing by increasing immigration targets, Ontario isn’t exactly saying no. In fact it’s saying “more please,” and in doing so creating its own justification to pave over farmland and protected greenspace. And now, immigrants are being blamed that the environment is on the chopping block in Ontario, even though it doesn’t have to be.
Immigration in Canada is a complex system. The federal government does the bulk of the work, taking charge of setting targets, choosing who comes on what visa or permit, and allocating resources to provinces and territories to welcome set amounts every year. Provinces and territories take charge of newcomers’ daily needs: for housing, this means, designating housing targets for every region and municipality according to projected immigration levels. Municipalities then identify land that can be developed to house this population growth.
Because of immigration, Canada’s population over the past half-decade grew at almost twice the pace of its Group of Seven peers, according to Statistics Canada. Last year, Canada hit a record high of 431,000 immigrants. The problem is, among the same G7 countries, Canada has the lowest number of dwellings per capita, per Bank of Nova Scotia economists.
Ontario receives the bulk of the newcomer population, but the federal government has been trying to direct more to smaller provinces. To stay competitive, the Ford government wants more immigrants to come here. Similar to Quebec, which controls the number and type of immigrants it takes each year, Ontario has asked Ottawa for more say over who gets to come to the province. Yet the premier’s comments in the wake of controversy over his development decisions point a finger at the federal government, implying that the increase in demand for housing is its fault.
And he’s not the only one. Over the course of The Narwhal’s reporting on Ontario’s development policy, a number of developers made the same argument: the federal government increased immigration targets, and thus demand for housing, very quickly, so the province needs to act quickly, too.
“Anyone who is truly concerned with development should take their fight to the federal government level and get them to decrease immigration,” one developer wrote in an email (although he asked for his comments to be “off the record,” The Narwhal didn’t agree to that before he made them). “If we had no immigration, we would have no need for additional homes. Problem solved, no development!”
This is a simplistic argument to make, one that even the developer refuted immediately. “Of course, with no immigrants we have a whole different set of problems, even bigger problems,” he continued in his email. “So if we are going to invite people into our country, then it is our duty to be good hosts and provide people with an affordable place to live.”
It’s easy to blame rapid and intense population growth fuelled by immigration for the lack of affordable housing, but the reasons Ontario is struggling to solve the housing crisis are far more complicated. There was a decade-plus of interest rates getting lower, and lower, and lower, which contributed to bidding wars and spiking prices. Then came a pandemic that made everyone want a bigger home — housing started hitting record highs in December 2020, when immigration was essentially frozen.
Labour, too, is a problem. BuildForce Canada, an organization that studies labour force data for the construction industry, says housing completion is behind target because there aren’t enough workers. To meet projected population growth targets and housing goals, more than 1.2 million workers will be needed by 2027, but the industry expects to be short by 29,000 people. Many employers are looking to hire through the Temporary Foreign Worker program, another stream of immigration, but there are other challenges with that. Their stay is temporary and very expensive, to start. Also: we often don’t treat them well.
Then there’s the type of housing people need, versus what developers want to build and what the government mandates. Last December, Ontario’s own Housing Affordability Task Force released a detailed report identifying zoning as the number one issue. Many areas that have already been allocated for development are designated solely for single-family homes, which house a small number of people on a large piece of land. Because of this, the task force estimated that up to 70 per cent of the total developable land in Ontario’s cities can’t absorb the projected population growth.
Ford’s own plans to open the Greenbelt will only result in 50,000 new houses — yet he’s promised to build 1.5 million. If 300,000 immigrants are moving to Ontario this year, that’s six people per house when the average household is less than three people. The province’s new policies merely try to speed up the construction of single-family homes by “streamlining” — to use the government’s language — a series of regulations, many of which were designed to protect the environment by ensuring houses are built sustainably. These include provisions to protect drinking water, and to ensure enough undeveloped land remains to absorb heavy precipitation and avoid floods.
When some southern Ontario municipalities tried to defend their density plans in light of these environmental considerations, Ford accused their mayors of “whining and complaining” and wanting newcomers to live in “mud huts.” It’s not the only comment that brings into question his respect for the immigrants his province seeks: in 2021, he did acknowledge the need for immigrants, but only “hard-working” ones, saying “You work your tail off. If you think you’re coming to collect the dole and sit around, it’s not going to happen. Go somewhere else.” He refused to apologize.
Hard work is not enough to afford a home in Ontario. Interest rates have soared — recent news stories have featured newcomers who moved to Canada to build better lives and instead got stuck with rapidly increasing mortgages and quickly falling home values. Pre-construction purchases in single-family suburban subdivisions are also posing problems for some Ontario buyers, many of them immigrants, who are struggling to get financing for homes that are now worth less than when they agreed to buy them.
But even these buyers are outliers since immigrants tend to rent, not own, when they first arrive. All this talk about buying new homes ignores that rents are skyrocketing, too, and Canada doesn’t even know exactly how many renters there are. Murtaza Haider of the Urban Analytics Institute at Toronto Metropolitan University told CBC it takes two to three years, if not longer, for immigrants to become homeowners — truly looking after their housing needs would mean more purpose-built rentals and better rent control.
All of which is to say, again, that immigrants aren’t responsible for jacking up house prices and likely won’t be able to buy the houses Ontario is determined to get built. There’s no guarantee they’ll even stay: a recent study by the Institute for Canadian Citizenship found that far fewer permanent residents are staying to get their passport, with the proportion falling from 60 per cent in 2016 to 45.7 per cent in 2021.
If the Ford government really cared about where and how immigrants lived, it would consider broadening the idea of what an affordable home is. Instead, it’s trying to deflect blame as Ontarians wonder why, exactly, environmental protections are being dismantled in the name of housing that doesn’t seem to make sense for newcomers, or anyone else.
The tension between human desires and the natural world isn’t new. As the human population has doubled in almost half a century, it has added tremendous pressure on a finite amount of land and water. These pressures are only going to worsen along with the climate crisis, as communities devastated by severe weather events look to migrate. Canada will likely be a hub for climate refugees: perhaps Ontario especially, given its access to the Great Lakes, which holds 20 per cent of the world’s freshwater.
There are few signs the Ford government is thinking about long-term climate resilience for a growing population. This would require ensuring Canadians and immigrants alike can live in complete communities that are sustainable, energy efficient, pollution free. It would mean protecting access to clean drinking water and secure food, not paving farmland or endangering watersheds. That’s what my family moved here for, anyway.
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