North must attract 1,700 new residents a year minimum for 20 years just to keep pace

·6 min read

There is no shortage of opinions when it comes to immigration in Canada and specifically, Northern Ontario. There are those who believe that it is a zero-sum game, that anyone who arrives here must take from others born here, or at least tip the scales so that everyone is fighting.

But there are some numbers collected at a recent conference, part of a report by the Come North Project, called Come North – Population Growth in Ontario’s Northern Regions, that show Northern Ontario is in dire need of more people.

From the report: “If we wish to maintain our historical, healthy, ratio of dependents to workers, Ontario’s northern regions would need to retain everyone who is currently here and attract some 8,100 additional people every year for the next 20 years.”

In fact, the report says just to limit the fall in the ratio of dependents to working age people to match the expected Ontario level by 2041, Northern Ontario needs to attract some 1,700 new people a year for the next two decades.

“That’s 34,000 new northerners to slow our decline, 162,000 to halt it,” says the report, and that is with the assumption that “everyone who is already here and who is born here over the next twenty years, stays here.”

The Come North Project is supported by FedNor (Federal Economic Development Initiative for Northern Ontario) and began with two conferences in February of 2020, one held in Thunder Bay and hosted by the Lake of the Woods Business Incentive Corporation and the other hosted by and in the City of Temiskaming Shores. The conferences were aimed at discussing population growth in Northern Ontario, and additionally, creating an action plan and resources to support the many communities looking to attract and retain population in rural and remote areas throughout the region.

Cognizant of the North’s population needs, in January, 2019, the federal government announced the launch of the Rural and Northern Immigration Pilot, an effort to attract 3,000 new Canadians to rural and remote Canada, including Northern Ontario, over five years.

Ahmed Hussen, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, announced the pilot program in Sudbury. It is a five-year federal immigration pilot open to communities in Ontario, Western Canada and the territories.

It will allow municipalities to access support to help newcomers settle in as part of the community.

The program is designed to use immigration to help meet local labour market needs and support regional economic development, combating issues such as out-migration of youth, aging populations and labour market shortages.

The minister said the pilot program will be capped at around 3,000 workers, but the number of immigrants could be three times higher or more, as they'll be bringing their families along.

At the time, Mayor Brian Bigger said he was excited about the possibilities of the new program.

“I'm very pleased about the announcement today,” he said. “We've been working very hard at attracting people to our community. As you know, as Sudburians, we're open for immigration. We're welcoming and inclusive. We have jobs that we absolutely want and need to fill.”

Sudbury.com is following up to see how many people have settled in participating Northern Ontario cities over the past two years of the project.

The 10-point action plan created focusses on several ideas, not the least of which is that every community needs to be a welcoming one, with resources in place to support newcomers and with a willingness to acknowledge racism and intolerance in the systems and communities -- encouraging newcomers to make a home here, and making it one they love and want to remain in.

It also acknowledges that settler Canadians are still wrestling with the treatment of Indigenous people of our area and that newcomers need to be as aware and adept at understanding the struggles and achievements of the Indigenous population and work toward reconciliation, as settler Canadians should.

Basically, said Charles Cirtwell, president of CEO of the Northern Policy Institute (NPI), in an interview, “we have to make our communities more welcoming. Not just for people of colour, but those who are already here.”

NPI, along with the Northwest Local Immigration Partnership, provided organisation support for the conferences.

Cirtwell said that potential newcomers to Sudbury could be apprehensive about coming if headlines show that Northern Ontario is unwelcoming or intolerant.

“Others could be nervous about coming if we can’t get our house in order,” he said. “If we can’t get in order for people who have been here for thousands of years, how are we going to get it in order for someone who has only been here for three weeks?”

But the real crux of the matter, he said, is based on two ideas: No. 1, the incorrect belief that northern growth is winner-take-all, and therefore cities should compete, and; No. 2, that the North is awfully bad at telling its own story.

“We spend a lot of time talking about trees,” he said of the current theme of Northern Ontario tourism.

At one point, while Cirtwell was interviewing in other cities for summer placements in Sudbury, the common question to him about living in the north were “do you have running water.” He said that while many know about Sudbury as a home to all the outdoor recreation you could ask for, they do not see the opportunities in health care, the global reach of the mining industry, or even affordable housing – at least compared to Toronto prices.

“We get a message that it is all trees and woods and water,” said Cirtwell. “But that is inconsistent with our message around investment attraction and people attraction. We’ve got world-leading technology, international opportunities, connectivity, the global marketplace from Sudbury. Mining has done a great job talking about international opportunities, but they haven’t connected that to other industries in the region.”

The action plan is needed more than ever considering the stark data showing the need for Sudburians to stay in place and to welcome newcomers as well, but also because the people that could come to Sudbury may aid in finding solutions to the many challenges that settler Canadians face when they examine the idea of welcoming communities.

“The people who are coming to Canada in 2021, from outside our borders have a high degree of risk tolerance,” said Cirtwell. “They’re open to new ideas, they’re interested in experiencing new cultures, and so they’re the perfect audience to help us move forward towards reconciliation and growth.”

If you would like to read the report for yourself, you can find it here.

Jenny Lamothe is a Local Journalism Reporter at Sudbury.com, covering issues in the Black, immigrant and Francophone communities. She is also a freelance writer and voice actor.

Jenny Lamothe, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Sudbury.com