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What needs to change to attract, hire and retain more immigrants in Atlantic Canada?


While some current efforts and initiatives are enticing more immigrants to work in Atlantic Canada, there are policy suggestions and other ideas on how to attract more newcomers and make them want to stay.

Small business needs

“There should also be a keen focus on matching immigrant recruitment to small-business needs. While many immigration programs focus on higher-skill, highly-educated immigrants, many small businesses need workers to fill lower-skilled jobs where on-the-job training is provided.”

— Jordi Morgan, vice-president (Atlantic), Canadian Federation of Independent Business

Joe McGuinness: “Now, here I am as an employer and it's fantastic to see how immigration ... is good for Canada, it provides us great diversity and a great labour force.” — Ryan Taplin
Joe McGuinness: “Now, here I am as an employer and it's fantastic to see how immigration ... is good for Canada, it provides us great diversity and a great labour force.” — Ryan Taplin

Paying it forward

Businessman Joe McGuinness knows all about coming to a new country.

Both he and his wife are immigrants. He’s from Ireland. She’s from India.

“I know what it's like to go through the minefield,” he says.

“Now, here I am as an employer and it's fantastic to see how immigration ... is good for Canada, it provides us great diversity and a great labour force.”

McGuinness is co-owner of Legendary Hospitality.

It operates well-known Halifax haunts like Durty Nelly’s and The Stubborn Goat, as well as the newer Antojo Tacos and Tequila.

McGuinness says it’s been a struggle to find qualified workers for the restaurants, so he’s been relying on newcomers.

“Canadians, for whatever reason, do not seem to want to work in the kitchen anymore. Even here in Nova Scotia, there's a community college and people get trained but they don't stay,” he says.

“There is a huge demand right across Canada for cooks for chefs and being able to bring them in under the Atlantic Immigration Pilot has been very beneficial for us.”

An assumption

“Canada has a very high percentage of conversion newcomers to citizenship, so that means that we are kind of assuming that people who come here are planning to stay here permanently and ... become full members of the society.”

— Janet Dench, executive director of The Canadian Council of Refugees

Announced in 2017, that three-year program aimed to bring up to 2,000 additional primary immigrant applicants and their families to the region.

Subsequently, it’s been extended and expanded, doubling in allocation and planned to run until 2021.

Under the pilot, employers apply for designation and work directly with newcomers who are already living in Canada or wish to immigrate during and after becoming permanent residents.

The pilot’s recent extension is a signal as to why attracting newcomers to Atlantic Canada is such an important piece of policy.

Growing populations mean growing opportunities and economies. According to Statistics Canada figures, population growth in the Atlantic provinces has remained close to zero in recent years.

With more young people leaving the region, especially for larger centres, governments have looked to immigration to boost the population, fill jobs, and reinvigorate the economy.

“We've got a ... significant amount of job vacancies, 6,000 in New Brunswick alone, and we simply don't have the number of people in the province I'm from or in the region to meet the needs that employers have,” says Matt DeCourcey, Liberal MP from Fredericton and parliamentary secretary to the minister of Immigration.

“We need new people to come in and fill those jobs. Without immigration, we simply don't have the ability to sustain nor grow our economy in the years to come.”

A complex area

“Immigration is a complex area, it’s not a one size fits all process. Not every immigration stream is going to match every individual’s unique needs or circumstances.”

— Lena Diab, Nova Scotia’s immigration minister

Janet Dench is executive director of The Canadian Council of Refugees.

Historically, she says, Canada has had great success with immigration, especially when it comes to people settling permanently.

It has been a role model for many countries, she says.

Unfortunately, however, Dench says that trend has shifted over the last decade as Canada has brought more people in on a temporary basis.

This is especially prevalent in Atlantic Canada, she says.

“There has been a big explosion in the numbers of temporary foreign workers. We've had (those workers) for a long time in terms of the caregiver program or seasonal workers, but it's been expanded much beyond that. So there's been a whole population of people who are here on a temporary basis who don't have full rights ... don't have access to certain services and also have the opportunity to be with their families.”

Dench says it doesn't serve the long-term interests of communities when people come for a short term and then are forced to leave.

“We’ve been pushing for the government to, to revert to having people come as permanent residents, and part of that means recognizing that we have economic needs that are at all skill levels or qualification levels. (That means) not taking permanent residents based only on having degrees and professional qualifications, but also people who can meet the needs that employers are identifying in the region.”

Immigration is a shared responsibility between the federal government, the provinces and territories.

The province handles the stream focusing on so-called economic immigrants — those who are immigrating for job opportunities.

There are many ways newcomers can enter Canada — as a student, as a refugee, as a temporary worker, as a family member or caregiver of someone who recently immigrated, or to fill a particular labour need.

— Government of Canada

Lena Diab, Nova Scotia’s immigration minister, says Nova Scotia has had recent success by crafting streams that match labour needs, for example physicians and early childhood educators, as well as programs targeting international students wishing to stay.

“We've got to keep working closely with our federal partner to ensure that we have pathways that support our own provincial needs, and we've got to keep developing those because life is not static. Things keep changing and we've got to keep changing when they do.”

Diab also cites the immigrant pilot as a way Nova Scotia has been increasing the number of newcomers to the province.

According to DeCourcey, a number of policy points have been key to the pilot’s success.

They include involving employers in the process, allowing spouses and dependents to come to Canada with the applicant, allowing for work permits to be issued upon arrival, and providing an opportunity to quickly apply for permanent residence status.

“Those are significant policy changes that we're seeing bear fruit in the way that people are staying in the region once they get here,” he said.

McGuinness points out that being able to work with the province’s immigration office to help guide potential employees to the right immigration stream has saved him a lot of headaches.

“I don't want to waste my time with an applicant who sends me a resumé from Mexico and says 'I’d love to work,' and then find out that, no, they don't qualify,” he said.

“The Office of Immigration can look at it and say, ‘This person is better off applying through this route or this route.’ So, from that point of view, it's been beneficial.”

Harnessing qualities

Given that more high net worth individuals and other entrepreneurs are on the move and interested in moving to Canada, it is incumbent upon governments to assess how they can better harness the qualities of such candidates to help grow the economy.

— Entrepreneur & Investor Immigration Summit, Conference Board of Canada

CHALLENGE: Getting newcomers to stay in Atlantic Canada

SOLUTION: A multi-pronged attack

According to a 2018 report from Ottawa-based Public Policy Forum, between 2012 and 2016 immigration to Atlantic Canada increased by a whopping 113 per cent compared to 12.4 per cent in the rest of the country.

However, the Atlantic provinces have lower immigration retention rates than anywhere in the country.

Nova Scotia had the highest five-year retention rate at 72 per cent, Newfoundland and Labrador is at 56 per cent, New Brunswick at 52 and P.E.I. at 18.

The think tank’s report — produced with support from federal government agencies and the Council of Atlantic Premiers — proposes a number of policy areas to help remedy this.

They include:

  • actively promoting the region’s advantages,
  • building on supports for employers to recruit workers they need,
  • creating opportunities for international students to stay,
  • ensuring necessary settlement services and supports,
  • and expanding welcoming initiatives.

Biggest challenges

“Some of the biggest challenges (when newcomers arrive) are the ability to be able to communicate with people when they first arrive in their language, to ensure that they're able to access the very services that we consider our right to have access to (such as) healthcare education.”

— Jennifer Bessell, Association for New Canadians in Newfoundland and Labrador

CHALLENGE: Helping newcomers settle

SOLUTION: Agencies are in place to offer support

Talk about retention to anyone who knows about immigration and the term “settlement services” is bound to come up.

There are a number of agencies across the country, funded in part by federal and provincial governments, that offer a suite of services to newcomers.

These range from helping with paperwork and finding jobs to providing language classes and helping ensure newcomers have the social supports they need to thrive.

Jennifer Bessell is the director of settlement services with one of those organizations, the Association for New Canadians in Newfoundland and Labrador.

It has provided these important services for immigrants and refugees to the province for 40 years.

“For a newcomer, whether that be a refugee or an immigrant, economic or otherwise, they need to have access to the services that will help them be successful in their goals.”

Retention rates

No province outside Atlantic Canada had an immigrant retention rate below 80 per cent between 2012 and 2016. No province in the region had a rate over 72 (Nova Scotia).

— Public Policy Forum

CHALLENGE: Giving immigrants a sense of community

SOLUTION: Improved family reunification measures

While tangible supports provided by settlement services are crucial, a larger sense of community and acceptance is invaluable to newcomers to any country or province, according to Jennifer Bessell of the Association for New Canadians.

“We did some anecdotal tracking ... of Syrian refugees who arrived in late 2015, early 2016 and our retention of that population has actually been quite high,” Bessell says.

Because many of them arrived together, she believes they already had that sense of community.

“They were learning and growing together as a community and they had like-minded individuals who were sharing the same faith, the same beliefs, and the same challenges,” Bessell says.

Janet Dench, executive director of The Canadian Council of Refugees, said that’s one reason why family reunification for refugees and immigrants is so important.

“The most common thing that we hear in terms of what would make for greater success for newcomers is if there were better options for family unification,” she said.

“Canada does have measures for family reunification, but they're often too narrow and too slow, even when it is possible for people.”

Supporting newcomers

One of the ways volunteers in the St. John’s area support newcomers is by working with local grocery stores to ensure there is a diverse range of food options available from other countries and cultures, including things like stocking halal and kosher items.

— Jennifer Bessell of the Association for New Canadians

CHALLENGE: Ensuring communities are good places to live

SOLUTION: Collaboration to make cities and towns viable places to stay

According to Janet Dench of the Canadian Council of Refugees, programs that allow existing populations of a particular region, ethnic group or religion to sponsor others from their community tend to be helpful for retention.

But it’s not just about ensuring newcomers have communities among themselves, Dench said.

“Newcomers have a huge amount of work to do in terms of learning the language and figuring out how Canadian culture works, but there's also the need for the community at all levels to … make ourselves accessible and welcoming towards newcomers,” she said.

While there are policies and initiatives that governments and organizations can put in place to help entice newcomers to come to and stay in Atlantic Canada, Bessell said one of the best ways to do this is making sure different levels of government and members of the public work together to ensure our communities are good places to live.

“Many provinces, especially within Atlantic Canada ... are in a very tough economic climate. And sometimes, you know the very reasons why our client base, immigrants and refugees, leave — those reasons mirror the very reasons why we're losing people in general,” Bessell says.

“Retention is a much broader discussion ... in many provinces it’s a bigger question of just what's currently happening here economically to make this a viable place for people to want to stay.”

‘Give them a hand, lend them support’

Feeling part of a community is important.

Tareq Hadhad: “I think for the first step, offer immigrants kindness, give them a hand, lend them support, and they will succeed much faster.” — Richard MacKenzie
Tareq Hadhad: “I think for the first step, offer immigrants kindness, give them a hand, lend them support, and they will succeed much faster.” — Richard MacKenzie

Just ask Tareq Hadhad, CEO of Peace By Chocolate in Antigonish, N.S.

He and his family are refugees from Syria who came to Canada in 2015 and 2016.

Hadhad’s father owned a chocolate factory in Damascus that was bombed during the war. Today, they own a thriving chocolate factory in their new town.

Hadhad said he was extremely impressed not just with how much support his family received from the community when they arrived, but by the sheer number of opportunities available to him as a newcomer.

Those opportunities included things like startup grants and other funding opportunities.

It was that support, he says, that helped set his family up for success in their new home.

“Offering resources and opportunities is the key for accelerating the integration of new immigrants,” he says.

“Know that some people, when they arrive here they would be hesitant to ask about what can they do or what is available. I think for the first step, offer immigrants kindness, give them a hand, lend them support, and they will succeed much faster.”

With a little help to get on their feet, Hadhad said newcomers can be an invaluable asset to the Canadian economy.

“Newcomers are joining the fabric of this country, they come here with a fresh set of eyes, so they screen the whole society and they really figure out the gaps way faster than us that have been living here a long time or people who were born here,” he says.

“They certainly don't take anything for granted, they work very hard and they try to find opportunities for themselves.”

Coming up

A series of Atlantic Immigration Summits are being held in St. John’s, Charlottetown and Halifax this spring. 

— Atlantic Immigration Summit

Just last month, Peace By Chocolate announced it will hire 50 refugees by 2022 as well as provide mentorship and guidance to 10 refugee startups to develop their business.

“We're trying to focus on hiring locals first, bring them back (from Ontario or Alberta), offering jobs to Canadians but ... also offering opportunities for those who are trying to come to this country and taking advantage of the programs that the government is making like the Atlantic (Immigration) Pilot,” he says.

Tareq Hadhad’s is newcomer success story.

The support and welcoming he and his loved ones experienced are leading to great things — for his family, the community and the economy.

Peace By Chocolate is an example of what’s possible.

For more such success stories to happen, and for a brighter future in Atlantic Canada, the community at large needs to appreciate and embrace the value newcomers can bring.

While compiling this Deep Dive on Hiring Immigrants, we had a sober reminder that anti-immigration and hate are very real.

The March 15 massacre of 50 people at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, was committed by extremists who were anti-immigration and anti-Muslim.

These sentiments, this hate, have no place in Atlantic Canada, or anywhere else.

As economists, policy makers and pundits tell us, if this region is going to survive and prosper, immigration is essential.

Hopefully, this series has enlightened some who doubt that.

— Steve Bartlett, senior managing editor

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DEEP DIVE: Employment after immigration in Atlantic Canada

Employing immigrants - how can we get businesses on board?

Attracting, hiring newcomers: who's making a difference in Atlantic Canada?

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