New Immigration Plan Misses the Boat

Commentary, Immigration, Frontier Centre

Immigration Minister Denis Coderre recently announced his plan to add one million new immigrants to outlying areas of Canada by 2011, by requiring them to live there for a time as a condition of entry. Should Manitoba, a province starved of immigration and a chronic population loser, welcome this aggressive, innovative policy?

The principle is well-intentioned and not unreasonable, in the sense that the value of Canadian citizenship ought to imply reciprocal obligations. Beyond obvious ones like uncriminal behaviour and the desire to work, Coderre proposes a "Social Contract" between the new arrivals and Canada. It would obligate the new immigrants to locate in one of Canada’s outlying areas, for example, Manitoba, for three to five years in exchange for permanent residency and the right to relocate after that time is up.

But the logic – that if an immigrant family has settled nicely into their new community, they will be more likely to stay – is troublesome. Not a whole lot of evidence exists to support that train of thought, at least as it relates to Manitoba. Everyone in the province is painfully aware of the significant numbers of home-grown Manitobans who have elected to pursue their futures elsewhere. What analysis does suggest is that people head to places that create the most jobs. Manitoba’s chronic population loss slowed only recently, when we posted relatively high employment rates. Immigrants head for work, the same as everybody else.

The goal of attracting and retaining immigrants must be met with sustained fundamentals, not imposed locations. High-growth provinces tend to have smaller governments with more competitive tax levels than Manitoba. For example, in Manitoba provincial spending accounts for 24% of the provincial economy. This compares unfavorably with Saskatchewan, 19.1% and Alberta at 14.1%. With a more nimble government sector and lower taxes, we won’t have to force anyone to come and stay here.

Manitoba Bureau of Statistics research indicates that, in 2001, exactly 4566 immigrants voluntarily chose Manitoba as their new home. In the same year, 1675 immigrants relocated from Manitoba to other provinces. The Bureau did not know what the average stay was for the families in the latter group. This makes it difficult to assess how this group measured up against a standard that would require families to stay at least three years. Based on the statistics alone, Manitoba’s net increase of 2891 immigrants represents a 63.3% retention rate.

But included in that rate are individuals processed through the Provincial Nominee Program (PNP), whose success skews the numbers. This program permits organizations like potential employers or churches, to nominate a prospective candidate without the requirement for processing through Ottawa. This essentially allows organizations to "hand pick" candidates, with the result that the retention rate approaches 90%. The success of this program inflates the total retention rate. Eliminate the PNP families and the retention rate falls from 63.3% to a less impressive 42%.

Remember, these current immigrants came voluntarily, likely because of family or friends in Manitoba. Yet over half, in the end, move to more opportunity-rich places in the traditionally stronger provincial economies of Alberta, Ontario and British Columbia. The retention of immigrants that are forced to locate here under the "Social Contract" plan would surely be lower, in spite of a minimum three-year obligatory residence. A more modest rate of retention, which seems inevitable, means that the program is a failure before it starts. Those who don’t want to be here would have one more reason to leave.

A national newspaper recently commented that "Social Contract" will frighten away "the best immigrants" from considering Canada at all. Why would a "cook from Hong Kong who would normally seek to open a restaurant in, say, Vancouver or Toronto . . . cool his heels as assistant cruller chef at a Ducking’ Donuts in Flin Flon for three to five years," the editor wrote. "Why wouldn’t this person pick Australia instead"?

Why, indeed. But the real danger from a program that is destined to fail is that it will discredit future efforts by Ottawa to populate low-growth provinces. A clear alternative to the "Social Contract" approach is the expansion of the Provincial Nominee Program. While we cannot rely on maintaining a 90% retention rate forever, it is reasonable to assume that the PNP strategy will easily outperform a forced location approach. An aggressive expansion of this program, ultimately to 5,000 nominees, is by far the more logical path to success.

Federal immigration efforts on behalf of Manitoba are commendable but unfortunately miss the boat, if you’ll forgive the pun. Let’s go with what works.