Immigration pilot program aims to draw newcomers to Atlantic Canada
When Frank Zhou finished his degree in math at Simon Fraser University, the international student from China was looking for a fast track for immigration to Canada and ended up in Prince Edward Island.
“Most immigrants only know of MTV,” said the 35-year-old, referring to Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, the magnets for newcomers. “Canada’s East Coast is off their radar.”
Zhou had arrived in Canada from Beijing, population 21.5 million, and never thought he would stay long in P.E.I., a province with 152,000 residents.
However, there he found a lifestyle and business opportunities that other newcomers overlooked, and Charlottetown has been his home since 2004.
Now, P.E.I. and the other three Atlantic provinces — Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland and Labrador — are hoping more prospective immigrants will discover what Zhou did and settle on the East Coast, with the help of a new pilot program that offers a speedy immigration pathway and custom-made settlement plan.
The Atlantic Immigration Pilot is the latest attempt by the four provinces, with a combined population of 2.3 million — or 6.6 percent of Canada’s total — to revitalise their stagnant population growth, the result of high interprovincial out-migration and low birth rates and immigration levels.
According to Statistics Canada, people aged 65 and above account for 19.8 percent of the population in the Atlantic provinces, up from 14.6 percent a decade ago. This compares to 12 per cent in Alberta and 16.9 percent across Canada.
In New Brunswick, the total population has actually declined by 0.5 percent since 2011, meaning deaths are now outnumbering births — a first in Canadian history, according to a parliamentary immigration committee report released in November.
“One of the things with immigrants is they like to go where others are, and we need to build that critical mass to attract other immigrants and retain them,” said Finn Poschmann, president of the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council, an independent think-tank based in Halifax.
“Our employers need staff at all skill levels, whether it is in the seafood sector, at tech firms, in sales and financial services. They are willing and happy to pay more, but they are not getting applicants,” Poschmann said.
Launched in March by the federal Immigration Department, the pilot program allows designated employers in the four provinces to recruit immigrants and recent international graduates to fill job vacancies without the labour market assessment required to prove a labour or skill shortage.
Employers, however, must work with local settlement agencies to develop a settlement plan for the prospective immigrants, to make sure the newcomers’ needs, such as housing, language training, child care and children’s education, are all taken care of.
The pilot has been capped at 2,000 newcomers by the end of 2018 and will double to 4,000 in 2020. Applications are fast-tracked and processed within six months.
To date, Immigration Canada said more than 650 Atlantic employers have been designated for participation in the pilot and they have recommended more than 750 workers to fill jobs in the four provinces, with 122 permanent resident applications having been submitted.
“The interest in this program is high,” said Nova Scotia Immigration Minister Lena Metlege Diab, whose department has already designated 247 employers and endorsed 165 job candidates.
“There is no fee paid by the employer and (immigration) applicant. We take it very seriously and they must satisfy us they are valid job offers,” she said.
New Brunswick’s minister of labour, employment and population growth, Gilles LePage, said the province is committed to ensuring employers, settlement agencies and local communities are prepared to welcome newcomers to the region.
Currently, the province is focusing on employer education and information sessions, targeted recruitment missions and developing a comprehensive public awareness campaign.
“With this holistic and collaborative approach to immigration, the province is working towards enhancing the retention of newcomers coming to New Brunswick,” said LePage.
Although immigration to the Atlantic provinces has risen steadily, reaching 8,296 in 2015, the numbers account for a mere 3 per cent of the total immigration to Canada each year.
“We are in the process of a transformation right now,” said Alex LeBlanc of the New Brunswick Multicultural Council. “In urban communities in New Brunswick, we have high schools where 25 per cent of the students were born outside of the country. We now have mosques in all the largest urban centres. There are pockets of interesting things happening.”
Since the launch of the pilot, the multicultural council has been providing cultural competency training to government employees and employers to make sure they have an inclusive and welcoming environment for newcomers.
LeBlanc said the Atlantic provinces do need to be more visible in promoting the pilot program as a viable option over other immigration destinations in Canada.
“The Atlantic provinces are one of the best-kept secrets of North America. The cost of living is affordable. With a modest income, you can still own a home. There’s no great commute time. And we have breathtaking, scenic natural environment on the coast,” said LeBlanc. “The quality of life here is fantastic.”
Ather Akbari, who came to Halifax from Pakistan by way of British Columbia, agrees.
While the lack of diverse cultural communities in the Atlantic provinces can be a problem for newcomers, the Saint Mary’s University professor said things have got much better since he moved there more than 25 years ago, after finishing his doctoral degree in economics at Simon Fraser University. Now, the provinces manage to retain 70 per cent of their new immigrants, up from just 40 percent a decade ago.
Unlike those who settle in the big cities with established ethnic enclaves, newcomers who start a new life in smaller communities are forced out of their comfort zone to interact more with local Canadian communities, and can integrate more quickly into their adopted country.
“Canadians think that Canada stops at Quebec. Life is good east of Quebec,” said Akbari, whose research focuses on the economics of immigration, aging and diversity.
“Immigration is population growth. It’s human capital growth. It brings new technology, ideas and international trade opportunities. It promotes economic growth in these smaller provinces in a positive way.”
Zhou is the perfect poster boy for the benefits of immigration to the Atlantic provinces.
Since moving to Charlottetown, he and his wife have established a business enterprise that includes a language school catering to international students, a software development company, a business consulting firm that hosts trade missions to China, and an equity investment operation. Most recently, he brought the Cows Creamery ice cream business to China.
“There are a lot of opportunities on the East Coast. People are extremely nice here,” said Zhou, whose 2-year-old son, Jayden, was born in P.E.I. “This is my home. I’m a proud Atlantic Canadian.”