In the first quarter of 2021, Canada’s population grew at the fastest rate since the pandemic began.

The population rebounded thanks to the recovery of pre-pandemic immigration levels, and the return of international students.

Immigration raised Canada’s population by 82,000 in the first quarter. The federal government’s push to encourage temporary residents in Canada to apply for permanent residence resulted in high numbers of new immigrants who were already living in the country.

International students and Post Graduation Work Permit (PGWP) holders were the primary drivers of Canada’s population growth. New study permits increased 44 per cent year-over year, a complete turn around from 2020 when the international student population fell by 60,000. In the first quarter 2021, Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) issued about 21,000 permits. PGWPs increased 160 per cent to about 24,000.

Even with a strong start to the year, the pandemic still amounts to a lost year in terms of Canadian population growth. Year over year, the population grew just 0.4 per cent, when a rate of 2.1 per cent is required to sustain growth. The natural increase, that is the number of births minus the number of deaths, was the lowest level in recorded history at 6,400. This was partially a result of deaths due to coronavirus.

“Even as COVID-19 subsides, the natural increase is likely to continue to decline into the future leaving immigration to make up the shortfall,” economist Andrew Agopsowicz writes in the RBC report, “This puts even more of a spotlight on the federal government’s execution of its immigration plan.”

The first four months of IRCC data indicate that Canada is falling short of its target of 401,000 new immigrants in 2021. Canada welcomed 70,500 new permanent residents in the first quarter, plus another 21,105 in April. In order to meet its immigration goals, Canada will need to admit more than 38,675 new permanent residents per month between May and December.

That being said, IRCC has been working to achieve these targets. Throughout the pandemic, IRCC has been focusing on inviting in-Canada Express Entry candidates to apply for permanent residence. In the first half of 2021, more than 88,000 Express Entry candidates were issued Invitations to Apply, a record number.

IRCC has also introduced some special measures. Recently, it waived the medical exam requirement for some in-Canada immigration applicants. Also, Canada eased travel restrictions to allow approved permanent residents to complete their landing. In addition, Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino introduced new immigration programs for essential workers, refugees, and Hongkongers.

Immigration has been the government’s strategy for addressing Canada’s long-term demographic challenges. Canada has an aging population and a low birth rate. Without immigration, Canada’s growth rate would not reach the threshold needed for population growth. Some 9 million baby boomers are set to reach retirement age this decade. Without new replacements, Canada’s labour force will not be able to remain as competitive in the world market, and the pressures to care for the older generation will be placed on the smaller pool of workers.

It is for this reason, the Canadian government has maintained support for immigration throughout the pandemic.


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