The Liberal government is launching a new pilot program aimed at attracting and retaining skilled immigrants in Canada's rural and northern communities — places that are grappling with labour gaps due to a youth exodus and aging populations.
Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen announced the pilot today in Sudbury, Ont..
About 78 per cent newcomers to Canada settle in big cities such as Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver under existing federal economic immigration programs. Hussen said this pilot will encourage skilled workers and their families to set down roots in the communities that need them most.
The federal government will work directly with communities and with groups that help newcomers with employment, language training and other social assistance. That "welcoming infrastructure" will help them successfully transition to new lives in Canada, and to stay in the communities in which they arrive, Hussen said.
"We know the faster newcomers get these tools, the faster they can contribute to Canada," he said.
Hussen said immigrants will be chosen for the pilot based on matching their skills to the local needs of their communities, and could come from any of a number of professions, from truck drivers to teachers to lab technicians. He estimated that about 3,000 people and their families could participate in the pilot.
According to statistics provided by Hussen's office, the number of potential workers in rural Canada dropped by 23 per cent between 2001 and 2016 due to an aging population.
Rural Canada contributes an estimated 30 per cent to Canada's GDP.
While there is nothing that would force immigrants to remain in the location because mobility rights are enshrined in the Charter, the idea is to weave them into the fabric of the community.
"When the children are registered in the local school and the spouse has a job or has started a business, we've seen in Atlantic Canada, that means it's much harder later down the road for a principal applicant to decide to leave," he said.
This pilot is styled after a similar program in Atlantic Canada that launched in 2017, and was deemed successful in helping to fill labour gaps across the region.
Under that initiative, the four Atlantic provinces nominated about 2,500 workers in 2018 to fill labour market needs, according to a news release from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC.) The concept aims to grow local populations by building community ties with the newcomers so they remain in the area instead of moving on to a bigger city.
Hussen hinted at the possibility of expanding the immigration pilot to northern and remote communities last summer, after hearing from employers about the acute need for labour and skills during a roundtable discussion in Sudbury.
Community applications open
At the time, Hussen said the federal government was working to reduce wait times for immigration and visa applications and boost funding for settlement services, but was considering other measures to attract and retain skilled workers in rural and remote regions.
Hussen announced that as of today, IRCC will seek applications from interested communities in Ontario, Western Canada and the territories to take part in the pilot. Quebec oversees its own economic immigration program.
Communities have until March 1 to apply, and those selected can begin picking candidates for permanent residence this summer. Hussen told CBC the community links will be integral to the program.
"It's not just about the government of Canada doing its part, it's the local community contributing to that retention by providing a more welcoming atmosphere and the support services these newcomers need to succeed," he said in an interview.
Retention rates lowest in PEI
A recently released study found immigration rates were lowest in the country on Prince Edward Island, where fewer than one in five immigrants remained on the Island after five years.
The study from the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council used tax records to track whether immigrants remain in the province, and used 2016 records as the most recent ones available.
Hussen was asked about the rise of pockets of anti-immigrant sentiment across the country. "To those people who would try to sow fear and division among Canadians against immigration, I think they're working against our national interest," he said.
"And I wouldn't call them nationalists, I would call them by what they are: anti-immigrant people who are spreading intolerance and fear and division amongst our country."