In the drive to find employment for local residents, the Strait area may have missed the boat on the benefits of immigrants, and that oversight must be rectified.

According to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, Cape Breton welcomed only 190 immigrants in 2018, compared to a total of 5,970 newcomers province-wide.

Jennifer Watts, Chief Executive Officer of Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia, said Nova Scotia’s retention rate is the highest in Atlantic Canada because Nova Scotians are friendly, caring people. But she believes the more Nova Scotians move from just being friendly – to actually being more open to diversity – the more it will help people feel connected here.

Watts said there are multiple ways newcomers make positive impacts on rural communities, with the most direct being employees to fill jobs. In addition, Watts said immigrants bring their personal skills with them, and in some ways, have multiple skills that may be specialized or have different levels of experience from their time in different parts of the world. Others come with investments to start up new businesses.

The social fabric of the community is enriched as people come and settle into communities, with newcomers becoming volunteers, getting enmeshed in the community’s support system, and having their children go to school, Watts said, noting this expands the abilities of communities to leverage experience and opportunities.

In November, 2017, representatives of local immigrant stakeholder groups visited municipal councils in the Strait area.

In Port Hawkesbury, New Dawn Enterprises told town councillors that bringing in more immigrants facilitates economic development by providing more opportunities, creating more jobs, and injecting more wealth into communities.

New Dawn pointed out that Prince Edward Island implemented a strategy to actively seek out newcomers, and they have seen increased economic growth with their rise in population. This comes as Cape Breton’s population is declining quicker than ever. Between 1991 and 2016, the population dropped by nearly 30,000 people.

Weeks later in Richmond County, the Cape Breton Local Immigration Partnership (CBLIP) told council that the Island loses 800 people between the ages of 15 and 54 from its labour force every year.

Immigrants are more likely to start a business, export to countries other than the United States and are commonly healthy professionals who contribute to the local tax base, they said, noting that the CBLIP wants to improve the integration of newcomers, help communities to be more welcoming, and facilitate planning for newcomers.

The benefits of the immigration pilot program, according to the CBLIP, include a focus on bringing highly-skilled workers to Cape Breton, broadening the range of jobs for immigrants, and facilitating the retention and settlement of workers. They said the program can provide priority processing of citizenship claims and allow candidates to obtain employment to apply for residency. The CBLIP said they are making sure candidates meet qualifications before they arrive in Canada.

The coordinator of the Connector Program, told Richmond council that her task is to let immigrants know what opportunities are available in Cape Breton and let employers know who is available and what skills they possess, with the ultimate goal of helping immigrants find long-term employment.

New Dawn was also at Richmond Council, noting that every day, 30 Nova Scotians turn 65 and the province’s modest growth is expected to decline because of the shrinking and aging population.

But the results of a public opinion poll are encouraging. New Dawn asked Abacus Data to conduct a public opinion poll to learn how Cape Breton residents feel about increasing the number of immigrants to the island. They found that 63 per cent either support or strongly support an increase, while 18 per cent support an increase with conditions.

The coordinator of the CBLIP also spoke to Inverness Municipal Council late in 2017.

Representatives told council the immigration pilot is an approach to address labour market challenges by attracting and retaining recent graduates and foreign workers. They said the immigration plan is looking to match individuals with full-time jobs in Atlantic Canada.

The immigration partnership also told councillors that Cape Breton has to improve what it has to offer immigrants. The coordinator of the CBLIP told council they are developing an island-wide settlement strategy that defines how Cape Breton welcomes new people. As an example, the Connector Program makes sure good candidates are connected to employers.

These groups convincingly laid out the case for encouraging more immigration, now comes the process of implementing that plan.

The only way it can work for Cape Breton and eastern Nova Scotia is if local groups are given the resources to administer programs, local governments are afforded the authority to carry out strategies, and if there is a complete buy-in from the community.

Fortunately, a lot of heavy lifting has already taken place in identifying the needs, now those groups need the infrastructure to implement the strategy, and that is where the financial support of provincial and federal partners, as well as the charitable and private sectors, will be indispensible.

Meanwhile, all municipal councils need to transition from supportive to active partners in the effort to attract immigrants. This means the adoption of municipal immigration strategies and the integration of municipal resources with that of stakeholder groups.

Unfortunately, there is still some work to do at the community level.

While a vast majority of Cape Bretoners do support increased immigration, last year’s statistics show the island is not doing an adequate job of attracting and keeping immigrants.

It is possible the numbers reflect the amount of work that remains, as well as the above mentioned need for more support, but it is equally conceivable that communities can do a better job of being inclusive. Even conceding that Cape Bretoners are among the friendliest people in the world, there is room for improvement in how it welcomes newcomers.

But beyond cultural inclusion, there needs to be better communication between employers and potential workers at the local level and groups need to work together to integrate community support for immigrants.

And, these solutions will have to come from the community.