Our Province Needs Modern ‘Pioneers’

reeves op-ed

How does one stop the flow of people from the East Coast, Saskatchewan and rural Manitoba to more prosperous places?

A new pilot outlined by the Federal Government will see thousands of new immigrants arrive in Atlantic Canada. The current concern, rightly so, is retention: how many will stay?

Ottawa has never been able to solve our chronic outmigration problem here on the East Coast, and we have yet to resolve that for ourselves. Yet now, we’re simultaneously trying to solve that problem and figure out how to retain our newcomer immigrants. That’s what Ottawa is asking, and it’s a tall order. A wholly worthwhile undertaking, but it’s still a tall order.

When discussing immigrant retention is to be sure we’re not comparing apples to oranges.

More than three quarters of newly arriving residents to Canada land in just seven cities – Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa and Winnipeg. Toronto is one of the largest cities in North America. We can’t follow Toronto’s model nor their retention numbers; small town retention rates cannot be compared to big city retention rates. We just don’t have the same gravitational pull as these places.

According to Statistics Canada, in 2006, 97.2 per cent of immigrants resided in metropolitan areas, compared to 77.5 per cent of the total Canadian population. In that same year, just 2.8 per cent of recent immigrants lived in rural areas compared to 20 per cent of Canadians. (According to StatsCan, rural areas are areas located outside urban centres with a population of at least 10,000.)

Atlantic Canada is one of the most rural jurisdictions in the developed world. We are rural, and with the exception of Halifax (pop. 390,095), all of our municipalities on the East Coast are small cities, towns and villages. And they can seem even smaller to an immigrant arriving from a city of millions.

Nevertheless, consider the manufacturing-driven communities of Winkler and Morden in Manitoba: these two communities have rejuvenated their labour force and expanded their tax base. The communities are 10 minutes away from each other. Winkler is 15.9% foreign
born, and it’s population was 10,670 in 2011, up from 6,700 in 2001. In the past six years, the region has grown by more than 3,000 people – 3,000 newcomer immigrants.

This Manitoba-made provincial program shows the value of “hand-picking” potential newcomer immigrant community members well-suited for not just for the needs of local business, but more importantly, will-suited for small town life.

Eighty-five percent of families that have come through the program since 2013 have stayed in Morden. Winkler and Morden are not alone; Prince Edward Island is another example.

P.E.I., like Manitoba, has an approach that is unique.

Reports estimate 1,151 principal applicants of the Business Impact Category program made P.E.I. their permanent home from 2001 to 2010. Including family members, that would be 3,662 newcomers settling on the Island. Over that nine-year period P.E.I. saw $106 million in investments and a GDP impact of $60.4 million. More recently, from 2011 to 2015, 1,583 applicants were nominated for permanent residency. Due to P.E.I.’s immigration strategy and innovative configuration and management of the program the Island easily outstripped the other Atlantic provinces in population growth and was well more than triple that of New Brunswick.

Immigrant families create new demand for services in a local economy. Brown’s Volkswagen on P.E.I. is a case in point. Chinese affinity for high-end Volkswagens has translated into a small-town dealership becoming the No. 1 seller in Canada for several years running.

According to New Brunswick chief economist David Campbell, adding 1,000 immigrant families here with an average household income profile would generate over $65 million worth of new household expenditures. These 1,000 immigrant families would spend $3.2 million on recreation and generate over $20 million worth of taxes for local, provincial and federal governments.

Historically, traditional sources of immigrants (mainly Western and Northern Europe followed by the U.S.A.) constituted a higher share of the population across the rural zones of Canada. But for these three jurisdictions, their newcomers are from other countries – other continents. So Winkler, Morden and P.E.I. are not just bucking the 2.8 per cent trend of recent immigrants in Canada who live in rural areas, they’re doing it with a population that is wholly new to the receiving communities.

Between 2011 and 2014 population growth in Atlantic Canada was weak in all provinces except P.E.I., the most rural province of the four. P.E.I.’s success is largely due to the configuration of the business impact program, enabling them to select with great care newcomers that not only reflect provincial economic objectives but to view applicants through a “retention” lens of sorts. To see who among the applicants have a “modern-pioneer” type of mentality.

The federal government is demanding that retention numbers increase, and we want that too. Perhaps then, to support retention efforts, the questions for potential newcomers include: Are they well suited for small-town life? Are they OK with people being “all up in their business”? (You know we are) Is Atlantic Canada really what they’re looking for?

The questions for government becomes … how does government move to a more intentional process of choosing new immigrants with a “modern-pioneer” mentality? Our Island neighbours have an immigration strategy that we may be able to draw from, as do Winkler and Morden.

Beyond governmental policy, the question for each of us becomes: are each of us ready to take on the mantle of “newcomer community host” in some way? The absence of strong ethnic communities means immigrants are often unable to rely on those ties. Immigrants least involved in structured groups and/or organizations were those most likely to move out of the Atlantic region. Those who leave after two years, participated in roughly half as many different types of groups or organizations (45 per cent) as compared to stayers (81 per cent), according to, Why Do Recent Immigrants Leave Atlantic Canada, by Howard Ramos and Yoko Yoshida. Those who feel isolated and lack a sense of belonging are most at risk of leaving – each of us has the potential to combat this.

And I don’t mean, “Let’s be friendly.” All of us are proficient at “drive-by-kindness.” When is the last time you had a newcomer over for dinner? Have you ever even had a new immigrant over? Most committees and community groups have space for one more. Seek out a newcomer, invite them. Don’t wait for them to ask to join. This is what we can do, and that is the part we can play as the government works to further right-the-ship and recruit and retain our modern pioneers.