The Big Census News: Success of Canada’s Immigration Policies

Commentary, Immigration, Steve Lafleur

The 2011 census has re-affirmed several of the narratives about Canadian demographics that have dominated headlines: our aging population, the increasing urbanization of the country, and the growth of the West are among the highlights. Some have also recognized arguably the most important story that can be extrapolated from the data: the success of targeted immigration policies in revitalizing communities.

Immigrants coming to Canada have disproportionately settled in Toronto, Montreal, or Vancouver. The large influx of immigrants to these cities isn't a bad thing. Indeed, it has been a very good thing. The trouble is that much of the rest of the country has failed to attract enough immigrants to make up for their particular demographic problems.

This began to change in 1998 when the federal government began introducing the Provincial Immigrant Nominee programs. There are various categories, but the programs are focused on bringing in foreign workers who already have job offers. The census underscored the success of the nominee program in two regions not thought of as immigration hotbeds: the Prairies (outside of Alberta), and Atlantic Canada.

The demographic challenges facing Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Atlantic Canada are very different. Saskatchewan has historically been a breeding ground for future Albertans. But with courageous provincial government reforms during the 90s, strong demand for the provinces resources — particularly potash — and a government with a pro-growth agenda, the province is now desperate for workers.

A dire labour shortage is the only foreseeable brake on the provinces strong growth. A report from the Saskatchewan Labour Commission written in 2009 found that the province would need 120,000 new workers by 2020. That is in a province of just over one million.

The Saskatchewan Immigrant nominee program intake level has been steadily increased to help meet this demand. The number of immigrants to Saskatchewan in 2012 is expected to be roughly 12,500 — 4,000 of which will be nominees. This influx is helping to stave off labour shortages. While Saskatchewan lost 1.1 per cent of its population between 2001-2006, it grew by 6.7 per cent since 2006.

Manitoba's demographic challenges are less acute than those of Saskatchewan, but have been particularly felt in rural areas. To address this, Manitoba has made a concerted effort to increase the proportion of immigrants settling outside of Winnipeg. Many towns and cities whose industries simply did not have the manpower to remain viable have turned around.

Populations in many have either stabilized or grown. They have also succeeded in part by attempting to match immigrants with communities that are home to populations with similar ethno-linguistic backgrounds. This has made the settlement process easier in many cases. Manitoba's nominee program is widely considered to be the most successful in the country.

In some ways, Atlantic Canada is the antithesis of Saskatchewan. While the acuteness of Saskatchewan's challenges stem from a rapidly growing economy, Atlantic Canada's problems stem from struggling economies. It may seem strange to argue that stagnant regions ought to attract more immigrants, but in some ways it is even more crucial.

A labour shortage in a booming economy is a good problem to have compared to a labour shortage in a declining economy. Our aging population will leave many declining communities with difficulty attracting workers in every industry. As the native born populace moves West for more lucrative opportunities, it becomes difficult to fill any positions.

A community simply doesn't work well without carpenters, let alone physicians. Without new young workers, Atlantic Canada would be even further pressured. Fortunately, the census has shown some positive results for parts of Atlantic Canada. Growth rates ranged from 3.2 per cent for PEI to 0.9 per cent in Nova Scotia. Newfoundland posted its first population gains since 1986. The fact that immigration has helped stem the tide of decline in Atlantic Canada may well be the best news story from the census.

While immigration policy will remain controversial for the foreseeable future, the benefits of targeted immigration programs such as the immigrant nominee programs are immense. There is a good reason for all of the jurisdictions above to continue lobbying for more nominees.

Integration of immigrant nominees has been extremely successful. In a country with significant unfunded liabilities that is approaching a serious decline in the working aged population, the immigrant nominee programs are a welcome demographic success story. Now its time to expand them.