OTTAWA - The Conservative government has wrapped up its consultations on next year's immigration targets by breaking new ground — a precedent-setting sit-down with First Nations.
And by meeting with a traditionally disadvantaged group — one that has vocally questioned Canada's generous immigration policy — the government may be signalling what's to come in 2013.
Rick Dykstra, the parliamentary secretary to Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, met Thursday with representatives of the Assembly of First Nations and the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples.
It was the final consultation as the ministry prepares the immigration target numbers, and their composition, that are expected to be released in November.
Dykstra called the meeting "very productive."
"The aboriginal community has a very unique opinion on immigration issues, and not hesitating to talk about the economy at the same time," he told The Canadian Press in an interview. "So it was very fruitful."
Citizenship and Immigration can find no record of aboriginal communities being consulted on immigration policy, a point that has not been lost on First Nations leaders — some of whom pointedly refer to all non-aboriginal Canadians as immigrants.
"It's a whole new stepping stone for us," said Dykstra.
As for the tenor of the meeting, he said: "I think the general consensus on the actual numbers was to maintain or perhaps move down in terms of what our average has been over the last couple of years."
Every year the federal government consults with various stakeholder groups before setting the following year's immigration targets in early November.
The numbers have remained fairly stable under Conservative and Liberal governments. Total intake in 2011 was almost 250,000 migrants, compared with 262,000 in 2005, the last year under the Liberals.
But the makeup of those immigrants is in constant flux. In 2007, Canada accepted just over 66,000 family-class immigrants and 131,000 in the economic class. Last year, the family class comprised only 56,446 while economic immigrants had jumped to 156,121.
The Conservative government is also allowing more temporary foreign workers into the country. By last December, there were more than 300,000 such workers, a jump of 50 per cent since 2007.
That has prompted some grumbling in First Nations communities.
This summer, Betty Ann Lavallee, the national chief of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples — which represents urban natives — said Canada needs to train and employ aboriginal youth, not bring in foreign help.
"It's very important because we are a young generation, we are fast-growing and we are the next labour force for Canada," said Lavallee.
"We do not need to be bringing in immigrants. We are ready and prepared to work. We are a mobile people. We just need a little bit of help."
It is not a new complaint.
In 2010 two chiefs in northern Ontario made news when they held an education rally in Sault Ste. Marie that was overtly anti-immigration.
"What I say is close the borders," Batchewana First Nation Chief Dean Sayers was quoted telling the rally.
"Don't be bringing 200,000 more foreigners into these lands if you can't even look after the responsibilities you have to us already."
And in 2005 the Assembly of First Nations examined — and discarded — a resolution to "freeze all immigration coming into Canada until the federal government addresses, commits, and delivers resources to First Nations to improve the housing conditions, education, health and employment in First Nations communities."
Dystra said Thursday's meeting was not about moratoriums or shutting the door on immigration.
"I did not get that message at all," he said.
"There definitely was a leaning toward lowering the numbers, for at least a little while, to assist them in their endeavour to help with youth unemployment."
He said the aboriginal groups are seeking more continuing consultations, including with provincial ministries, as immigration and labour policy becomes entwined.