What is the Maritime Edge? 

Immigration, Diversity, and New Brunswick:

It would be a dramatic understatement to say that the conversation about immigration has changed over the past year.  Many countries are charting a course of stricter borders (and walls); travel-bans; nationalistic policies; and values-based screening.  However, that doesn’t seem to be the trend in Canada.  Canadians have embraced Syrian refugees and employers are coming forward with very real labour shortages in industries spanning from manufacturing to information technology.

As our country adapts to the shifting landscape, Canadians should remember that attracting global talent is a means to promote innovation and growth.  Not to mention that our people and communities are enriched by interacting and learning about different cultures and backgrounds. For most of us, this will involve stepping outside our comfort zones, but the benefits are many.

Richard Florida, of the University of Toronto, in a January 31, 2017 article for CityLab, highlighted that America’s edge in innovation (high tech and science) rested on its ability to attract talented and educated immigrants from around the world. This is now under threat. In a February 1, 2017 story for the Huffington Post, Sarah Rieger highlighted that US tech workers are increasingly looking to Canada, with employees at Google in California’s Silicon Valley potentially bringing their jobs with them to Canada.

Even before recent events, New Brunswick had unique advantages that are potentially attractive for newcomers: high quality universities that are a draw for foreign students to get their foot in the door in our province. There is also a growing tech sector in New Brunswick’s three cities and Startup Canada recently named Fredericton as the national Startup Community of the Year, in November 2016.

Postsecondary education, information technology, and green energy, are all sectors that thrive when there is an educated and talented workforce. Our province’s ability to attract immigrants is important in this regard. Having cities that are desirable places to live – different housing and transit options, walkable neighbourhoods, festivals and recreation activities – are advantages in attracting talent from within the country and overseas. Our smaller cities offer lower commute times and housing costs, as well as proximity to rural areas and nature.

In the United States, places like Vermont and Colorado have been attractions for young professionals who want to be near outdoor activities and nature. Medium-sized cities like Austin Texas and Portland Oregon have benefitted from talent and immigration. Mega-cities are not for everyone.

We need to recognize the unique advantages and potential of our province’s smaller cities. Smaller cities and communities can have a stronger sense of community, there can be more access to people from different walks of life, including business and political leaders. Networking in such an environment can be easier, something essential for entrepreneurs.

Also, recent events have shown a welcoming environment here in the province: including a campaign to raise money for Fredericton’s mosque in a show of solidarity between non-Muslims and Muslims in the aftermath of the attack on the Quebec mosque. As well, the warm welcome for Syrian refugees is another positive testament to where we live.

Of course, we should be cognizant of disadvantages and discrimination towards people of non-majority ethnic and cultural backgrounds (including barriers that may not be obvious). For example, smaller cities and communities can have established social networks – including family-networks – where newcomers can feel shut-out.

We also should try to avoid mistakes in New Brunswick that have occurred elsewhere. For example, Toronto is a model of cultural diversity and is an emerging global city. There is relative social harmony in Toronto as well. However, the city is also plagued with deep inequalities along lines of ethnicity.

University of Toronto professor David Hulchanski, in his landmark “Three Cities of Toronto” study, highlights deep economic and spatial inequalities in Toronto. In the inner-suburbs of North York, Etobicoke, and Scarborough, there are areas with high populations of immigrants and visible minorities, many of whom live in isolating tower block apartments in areas not friendly to pedestrians (ie. thoroughfares with spread out developments). Many of these areas also lack proper transit, something especially difficult for lower income residents and many newer immigrants who may not have cars. As well, many of these areas are “food deserts” where there is not a grocery store with fresh produce nearby.

Could the smaller size of New Brunswick’s cities be an advantage, where places are geographically closer thereby facilitating inclusivity and accessibility? Could “Maritime hospitality” be an advantage? This is not to take away from the obvious importance of employment opportunities and access to essential services, but if those are in place – can our unique culture and our size be an advantage that makes the difference?

In all this though, for all the economic arguments for small-city-urbanism and immigration, the most important consideration is moral: being kind and welcoming to people from different backgrounds, the spirit of hospitality and decency. In an era where these values are under attack, it is important we uphold the values of multiculturalism and understand “Maritime hospitality” to include people who may not look like us, worship like us, or speak the same language. This is the crucial consideration for 2017.

Hassan Arif recently completed his PhD in urban sociology at the University of New Brunswick, he has a previous degree in law. He is pursuing careers in law and academia. He has written on public policy and urban planning for numerous outlets including the Detroit News, the Toronto Star, the Huffington Post, and Spacing.