Canada's surging cost of living fuels reverse immigration

For a nation built on immigrants, a rising trend of people leaving Canada risks undermining one of Justin Trudeau government's signature policies, which granted permanent residency to a record 2.5 million people in just eight years.

December 09, 2023 05:01 pm | Updated 05:53 pm IST - TORONTO

Justinas Stankus, 38, who came to Canada from Lithuania in 2019 and is studying at the University of Toronto, walks his dog in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Representational image

Justinas Stankus, 38, who came to Canada from Lithuania in 2019 and is studying at the University of Toronto, walks his dog in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Representational image | Photo Credit: Reuters

The dream of making it big in Canada is turning into a battle for survival for many immigrants due to the high cost of living and rental shortages, as rising emigration numbers hints to newcomers being forced to turn their back on a country that they chose to make their adopted home.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made immigration his main weapon to blunt Canada's big challenge of an aging and slowing population, and it has also helped fuel economic growth. That drove Canada's population up at its fastest clip in more than six decades this year, Statistics Canada said.

But now a reversal of that trend is gradually taking hold. In the first six months of 2023 some 42,000 individuals departed Canada, adding to 93,818 people who left in 2022 and 85,927 exits in 2021, official data show.

The rate of immigrants leaving Canada hit a two-decade high in 2019, according to a recent report from the Institute for Canadian Citizenship (ICC), an immigration advocacy group. While the numbers went down during pandemic lockdowns, Statistics Canada data shows it is once again rising.

While that is a fraction of the 2,63,000 who came to the country over the same period, a steady rise in emigration is making some observers wary.

For a nation built on immigrants, a rising trend of people leaving Canada risks undermining one of Justin Trudeau government's signature policies, which granted permanent residency to a record 2.5 million people in just eight years.

Reuters spoke with a half a dozen people who have either left the country or are preparing to do so, because of the high cost of living.

Cara, 25, who came to Canada in 2022 as a refugee from Hong Kong, now pays C$650 ($474) in monthly rent for a single-room basement apartment in Scarborough, north of Toronto, which is about 30% of her monthly take-home salary.

"I never realized that living in a Western country, you can only afford renting a room in the basement," she said. She declined to give her real name because she fled Hong Kong after participating in the 2019 protests triggered by a now-abandoned extradition bill.

Cara works three part-time jobs, making Ontario's minimum wage of C$16.55 per hour, and goes to an adult learning school to earn university credits.

"I almost use every single penny," she said, while in Hong Kong she was able to save about a third of her monthly salary.

To be sure, emigration as a percentage of Canada's overall population touched a high of 0.2% in the mid 1990s, and currently stands at about 0.09%, according to official government data.

While the numbers are small now, lawyers and immigration consultants warn that a pick-up could cast a shroud over Canada's appeal as the one of the favoured destinations for newcomers.

"There's a real importance in creating positive experiences in those early years" so that people decide to stay, said Daniel Bernhard, CEO of ICC.

Immigrants blame the sky-rocketing housing costs as the biggest reason for their decision to consider a new country.

On average in Canada about 60% of household income would be needed to cover home ownership costs, a figure that rises to about 98% for Vancouver and 80% for Toronto, RBC said in a September report.

Myo Maung, 55, migrated to Canada from Myanmar over three decades ago and made a successful career as a real estate agent and a restaurateur. But he plans to retire in a country like Thailand since he cannot see himself maintaining his living standard in Canada on his retirement income.

Phil Triadafilopoulos, a political science professor specializing in immigration at the University of Toronto (UofT), said rapid immigration is exacerbating the housing shortage.

"It's not surprising then that people who have options... either go to another country or go back home having had a taste of the situation in Canada," Triadafilopoulos said.

Last month Trudeau's government capped its target for new residents at a half million per year from 2025 onwards to ease pressure on the housing market.

But for some it is too little too late.

Justinas Stankus, 38, who came to Canada from Lithuania in 2019 to pursue a doctorate in political science at the UofT is considering relocating to Southeast Asia where the cost of living is lower and where he could still pursue his research.

Stankus, who pays C$2,000, including utilities, for a one-bedroom apartment, said increasing living expenses has made it difficult to afford basic necessities.

"With a graduate student's budget, it is not sustainable," Stankus said.

Cara from Hong Kong says she feels trapped and wants to go. "Whenever I get a chance to leave, I will take the chance."

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