Saskatoon drawing newcomers away from bigger cities

Immigrants looking to start a new life filled with prosperity and opportunity are packing their bags and heading in droves to… Saskatoon?

While provinces like Ontario, Quebec, and British Columbia have long attracted the majority of incoming Canadians, a report by the Globe and Mail suggests the Prairie city, with its reputation for welcoming new residents and its numerous employment opportunities, has become an increasingly attractive place for migrant workers to settle.

"My friends live here, they said it's a good place — for living, for job opportunities…That's why I chose Saskatoon," Bangladeshi native Sayful Ahmed told the paper about his decision to move there three weeks ago. "So far, so good."

A recent Statistics Canada survey, released Tuesday, shows Saskatchewan and Alberta have edged to the top of the population growth chart. Saskatchewan not only demonstrated the highest level of international migration in the third quarter of 2011, it also showed the highest growth level of any quarter since 1971.

"Settlement patterns in contemporary Canada are changing. Western Canada is increasingly vibrant economically and Saskatchewan, we think, is helping to drive that kind of shift," said Immigration Minister Rob Norris. "It's allowing us to fuel our economic growth…We're seeing community renewal under way and we're also seeing economic benefits."

A bit further east, migration levels in Ontario clocked in at their lowest level since 1998, as the country's most populous province has seen unemployment rates sail past the national average.

The downturn has hit newcomers especially hard. A 2010 Board of Trade report states that, compared to their Canadian co-workers, Toronto immigrants are earning less now than they did in 1980. The report added that the failure to properly utilize their skills is arguably costing the Canadian economy billions.

As economic opportunities grow in the other direction, Western provinces are luring skilled workers — both Canadian and international-born — to seek their fortunes in a burgeoning market.

In fact, many of Ahmed's new acquaintances have recently settled in Saskatchewan after first testing the waters elsewhere.

"All the Bengalis I meet here… they either come from Toronto or Montreal," he said.

Part of this shift stems from the way Western provinces are choosing who comes through their borders. Instead of relying on the "points system," a selection process that often brings in highly educated surgeons and engineers who later find themselves facing unemployment, places like Saskatchewan and Alberta are making an effort to hand-pick workers who will fulfill a particular economic need.

The gamble appears to be paying off. In the past year, Ottawa has dipped into immigrant-relocation resources earmarked for Ontario, and reallocated some of those funds to the trio of provinces on the left side of the map.

(CP photo)