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Afghan refugees who supported Canada's mission in Afghanistan prepare to board buses after arriving at Toronto Pearson International Airport on Aug. 24, 2021.MCpl Genevieve Lapointe/Reuters

There is much to question in the budget brought down Thursday by Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland, including its emphasis on stimulating investment and productivity through government intervention rather than letting market forces do the job.

But Budget 2022 gets one big thing right: It provides the funding needed to meet the government’s record-setting levels of immigration. This uniquely Canadian embrace of newcomers will be the real driver of innovation and growth in the years ahead. Getting immigration right matters more than this new agency or that new tax credit.

Canada brought in more than 405,000 immigrants last year, a record number (although not a record as a share of the population – those records were set prior to the First World War). The intake is projected to increase this year and next, reaching more than 450,000 annually in 2024.

Thursday’s budget commits $4-billion of new funding over five years to handle this extremely high intake. About half of that money will be dedicated to processing and settling applicants. Most new arrivals will be economic migrants, but there are also provisions for families and for refugees, including those from Afghanistan and Ukraine.

Chrystia Freeland’s 2022 federal budget is a political instrument as much as an economic ledger

Here’s how the 2022 federal budget affects homebuyers and consumers

Critics say immigrants drive down wages and push up housing costs. But in this aging society, we need younger workers to fill labour shortages, increase consumption and pay the taxes needed to smooth the final years of the baby-boomer generation. Foreign-born workers are expected to increase from one-fifth of the labour force in 2020 to a third in the next decade.

High immigration does contribute to rising housing prices. The current housing shortage won’t be eased by the inadequate measures in this year’s budget. That will only happen when provinces and municipalities loosen restrictions on developers, allowing cities to build up and out. The most Ottawa should do is provide funding for infrastructure for new developments, which the budget vaguely promises to do.

There is a commitment of $1.3-billion over five years “to support the long-term stability and integrity of Canada’s asylum system.” Let’s hope the money goes both to aiding legitimate refugees coming to Canada, and to tightening the border against irregular crossings.

The budget states 10,000 of the 40,000 Afghan refugees Canada has committed to accepting are now in the country. That’s too few, and the process is taking too long. And if there is any truly disappointing element to the immigration portion of the budget, it is the lack of specific targets for accepting Ukrainian refugees.

Yes, most of those who come here hope to return to Ukraine when the war ends. But others will want – or have – to stay, and we should welcome them. They will make great Canadians.

Refugees from war-damaged countries have contributed mightily here, from the displaced persons who fled Europe in the wake of the Second World War, to Hungarians escaping Soviet oppression in 1956, to the boat people of Southeast Asia who came here in the 1980s. Afghans and Ukrainians will contribute just as much.

Australia and New Zealand, two other settler cultures that have traditionally had high levels of immigration, have both imposed more restrictive policies that seek to limit permanent newcomers to the highly skilled.

We need highly skilled immigrants, too. But as the pandemic taught those who didn’t already know, Canada’s most essential workers can be found in nursing homes or driving trucks. They work in construction and in supermarkets. They build houses and harvest crops. We need them and not just as temporary workers.

The Liberals’ aggressive immigration targets, and the funding provided to meet them, prompt a question for Pierre Poilievre, Jean Charest and the other candidates for the Conservative leadership: As prime minister, would you maintain or increase the record-high immigration levels established by the Trudeau government, return to the levels that existed before the pandemic of more than 300,000 a year, go back to the 260,000 or so admitted annually when Stephen Harper was Conservative prime minister, or take them lower still?

It’s probably the most important question a candidate for leader of a federal party needs to answer. The right answer can be found in Thursday’s budget.

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