Efforts to attract and retain more immigrants deserve the support of the community and all levels of government.
At Port Hawkesbury’s November town council meeting, vice president of development for New Dawn, Erika Shea, said bringing in more immigrants facilitates economic development, provides more economic opportunities, creates more jobs, and injects more wealth into communities.
She pointed out Prince Edward Island, a province with a size comparable to Cape Breton, recently implemented a strategy to actively seek out newcomers. She said they have already started to see increased economic growth with their rise in population.
Shea pointed out that Cape Breton’s population is declining quicker than ever. Between 1991 and 2016, the population dropped by nearly 30,000 people. The overwhelming majority of new immigrants to the province are by-passing rural areas and settling in larger urban centres, with between 87 and 90 per cent of Nova Scotian newcomers settling in the Halifax Regional Municipality each year.
Shea wants the provincial government to acknowledge and change this “systemic problem” and is seeking the support of municipalities in lobbying the provincial government to create a 10-year pilot regional nominee program. She believes that having better control of the immigration process would allow rural areas like Cape Breton to be more successful in attracting newcomers who will remain in the area. Shea hopes that the pilot program would bring in 500 candidates to Cape Breton per year, along with their immediate families.
New Dawn reached out to the provincial government with their proposal last May, with meetings taking place in Halifax and Sydney.
During the monthly meeting of Richmond Municipal Council on November 27, the Cape Breton Partnership’s Omar Tag El Din, program lead for the Atlantic Immigration Pilot, told council that Cape Breton 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 U.S. and are commonly healthy professionals who contribute to the local tax base, Tag El Din said, noting that Cape Breton’s Local Immigration Partnership 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 Tag El Din, 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. He said the program can provide priority processing of citizenship claims and allow candidates to obtain employment to apply for residency.
Tag El Din said they are making sure candidates meet qualifications before they arrive in Canada and he requested the municipality strike a committee to champion immigration.
Elva Zhou, coordinator of the Connect Program, said 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.
Since June, Zhou told council the program had 21 job matches and nine immigrants have found jobs.
In addition to striking an immigration committee, Zhou requested the municipality increase awareness of the program by identifying those seeking work and finding employers with labour needs.
Shea was also at Richmond Council last month. She noted that every day, 30 Nova Scotians turn 65 and the province’s current three years of modest growth is expected to decline because of the shrinking and aging population.
Shea told council that that Cape Breton has 14.3 per cent of the population of Nova Scotia, but only 3.5 per cent of the immigrants, and that Cape Breton has lost 18 per cent of its population under 15 in the past 10 years.
“We can’t keep losing the population we have and still expect to keep schools, hospitals and services,” Shea told council.
But the results of a recent public opinion poll are encouraging. Last month, 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.
On December 4, Inverness Municipal Council also heard from Tag El Din, who said the pilot is an approach to address labour market challenges by attracting and retaining recent graduates and foreign workers.
He said the immigration plan is looking to match individuals with full-time jobs in Atlantic Canada, but those individuals often come with families.
Tag El Din also told councillors that Cape Breton has to extenuate what it has to offer immigrants.
Presenting with him was Kailea Pedley, coordinator of the Cape Breton Local Immigration Partnership who told council they are developing an island-wide settlement strategy that defines how Cape Breton welcomes new people.
Zhou mentioned that her Connector Program makes sure that good candidates are connected to employers.
All three presenters said the municipality can help by participating in CBLIP working groups and communicating those values to the community.
Armed with this level of public support, the involvement of government, and more importantly the glaring economic trends facing Cape Breton, the time for action is now.
It is encouraging that provincial officials have been meeting with New Dawn, that municipal councils are aware of the need for increased immigration, and a majority of Cape Bretoners are behind these efforts. Without the support of the community and their elected representatives, few ideas can take shape.
Now it is up to all levels of government to go beyond awarness and become fully invested. The above-mentioned meetings with provincial officials are a positive first step, but without the full-throated support and follow-through of the public sector, nothing will happen.
For this to succeed, there need to be changes in immigration policy, at the national and provincial levels and municipalities need to organize at the community level.
Without these measures, these programs will not fly and the economy of Cape Breton will worsen.