A group of senior federal Ministers were in Summerside recently along with the Atlantic premiers to talk about the Atlantic Growth Strategy. The AGS has a number of moving parts but immigration has been a central cog. The Atlantic Immigration Pilot Project (AIPP) has great potential, but businesses across the region need encouragement to buy in.
The Atlantic provinces need more people. Our demographic trends continue to be worrisome as the population of the region gets older and shrinks. The impact of these trends on our labour force and the economy will be significant in the years ahead. The resulting strain on governments’ ability to provide healthcare, education and other vital services will force taxes higher with fewer people bearing the load.
This is not some abstract theoretical forecast. These problems are real and on our doorstep.
Perhaps the greatest barriers to population growth have been an unwarranted aversion to appropriate immigration levels in the region. There are many reasons for our poor immigration performance, some cultural, some bureaucratic, some economic, but there is no arguing we have been underperforming in attracting and retaining immigrants in Atlantic Canada for decades.
Recent data from Corporate Research shows in Nova Scotia, one-third of Atlantic Canadians believe the region would be better served by having more immigrants given the region’s cultural and economic conditions and needs, up a few percentage points from 2016. Four people in ten believe the number should stay the same and shockingly 20 per cent still say we should have fewer immigrants, down 7 points from 2014.
It’s heartening to see attitudes are changing slowly but it’s obvious there’s still lots of work to do.
Both the federal and provincial governments are now recognizing the importance of increasing the numbers of new Canadians in the region to compensate for our low birth rates and aging workforce. While policymakers and government officials are acknowledging the challenge, this is something we all have a stake in.
The AIPP is showing some signs of success but both business and government need to open better lines of communication to make it work more effectively. Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) is looking at the results of this project carefully to see if this is a better approach to helping both immigrants and businesses succeed.
There are still plenty of hurdles. Decades of trying to navigate immigration programs not designed for small business have left many business owners either wary or unwilling to use immigration as a human resource solution. The good news is federal immigration officials seem to be finally recognizing the value of having business on board and providing decent customer service. Initially focussing on highly skilled workers with the Global Skill Strategy, IRCC created what they call Dedicated Service Channels (DSC).
With the AIPP, the DSC has been expanded to assist smaller firms, looking for a broader range of skill, to find the right person for the job. Once a business is approved for the AIPP through the province, the feds can provide a specific case worker business owners can call to get answers and updates. It removes uncertainty around the timing and smooths out the entire process. While new, early reviews from businesses who have used the DSC are very positive.
Additionally, business owners need to be made aware of the person with the skills they are looking for – may already be in Canada. There are many new Canadians, already in the system, looking to be matched with employers. Businesses in Atlantic Canada should contact their provincial immigration departments first. They can help guide prospective employers through the process.
Retention is the key to a successful immigration policy. With the demographic challenges we are facing, a critical piece of the puzzle will be how well we do as a business community making immigrants feel welcome and helping them adapt to their new home. It’s up to governments to ensure the business community knows what resources are out there to help them retain new talent in their communities.