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Tackling challenge of attracting rural immigrants

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This week the province announced a plan to hire immigration agents in rural parts of the province.

P.E.I. has made some progress in its bid to increase the population through immigration, and it is the main reason our population increased slightly in last year's census. There is no question the effort to attract more people has to continue full steam ahead. We have an aging population, and without immigration, we will struggle just to maintain the status quo, let alone increase.

To date, most of the new immigrants have chosen to settle in the greater Charlottetown area, giving the Island capital an ethnic mix that rivals many larger centres. When the Wade MacLauchlan government announced its population strategy earlier this year, the premier said there would be a significant focus on attracting more people to rural areas, and the request for proposals for the new agents is one of the first building blocks announced towards achieving that marker.

Workforce and Advanced Learning Minister Sonny Gallant said there could be up to 10 such agents spread across the province and they will work closely with the recently appointed regional economic advisory councils to identify opportunities.

That is all well and good, but another vital matter has to be addressed, namely the lack of support programs like English as a second language training in many parts of the province. That training is vital for immigrants who have little or no grasp of the language.

The courses are readily available, for the most part, in the capital, but the numbers so far have not warranted programs in most other areas. Since there is little in the way of public transportation available in most rural areas, getting to Charlottetown can be problematic.

To its credit, the government does seem to recognize these challenges, and the agents are also mandated to work with the advisory councils and municipalities to help address them. However, it is not yet clear how much money the government will be providing to help support the effort.

The role of the P.E.I. Association of Newcomers in this new model is yet to be clarified. The association has played an active role in helping newcomers to adjust to Island life and obtain language and other training. They must continue that vital role as the government expands its immigration efforts to rural P.E.I. Perhaps they agents can either work under the association umbrella or at least ensure their efforts are co-ordinated.

Both Gallant and Rural and Regional Development Minister Pat Murphy are saying all the right things when it comes to attracting more immigrants to rural areas. Since they both represent rural districts, it is logical to assume they want their home communities to not only survive but thrive.

The key to making rural communities more attractive to immigrants is to have similar support systems in place to those available in the capital. That is no small feat, but hopefully this new program can play a role in meeting the challenge.

Andy Walker is a former reporter for the Journal-Pioneer and is now a freelance writer who lives in Cornwall, P.E.I. awalker@islandtelecom.com

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