The real threat to Atlantic Canada’s economic security isn’t who you probably think it is – neither is the solution

The real threat to Atlantic Canada’s economic security isn’t who you probably think it is – neither  is the solution


“Excuse me?”

Chen Qing was incredulous. He thought it would be simple. A few forms to fill out, some evidence to demonstrate his easily demonstrate-able entrepreneurial successes. Et voilà. Canadian permanent residency. Not… this.

“What are you talking about?” he asked again.

Chen had arrived in Halifax in 2009 to study commerce and business at Saint Mary’s University, a school where (like him) 30 per cent of the student body hailed from someplace else. Chen’s someplace else was Dalian, a port city of 3.25 million on the southern tip of China’s northeastern Liaoning Province, more than a full-day’s flying time from Nova Scotia.

The then-19-year-old chose Halifax for a number of reasons. For starters, it was so much smaller than his hometown that, intriguingly, “it felt like being abroad.” Plus: “the people were nicer, friendlier.” In Dalian, Chen had attended an international high school where foreign universities, including Saint Mary’s, often came to recruit. An older school friend had studied at SMU and reported back it had “a very good business faculty.” Not to forget lower tuition and greater opportunities to stand out in a smaller crowd.

Although Chen says he started with “nothing in my pocket, no money from my parents,” he quickly discovered the North American money-making possibilities of selling online. Someone had given him two tickets to the movies, but Chen didn’t have anyone to go with. So he posted them for sale on a Kijiji-like site frequented by Chinese students. They were quickly snapped up. He began to buy and sell used items — microwaves, keyboards and monitors — he thought would interest his fellow international students. All he was doing, he says now, was trying to earn a little spending money, and online buying and selling seemed “better than washing dishes.”

His first entrepreneurial lightningbolt moment came in 2011 after he bought a used queen-sized bed for $20, set it up in his living room, snapped a photo and posted it for sale online. Asking price: $140. It too sold quickly, generating a tidy profit of $100 (after paying for the mattress and spending another $20 to deliver it).

“This inspired me,” he recalls today. “I said, ‘forget it, I’m now selling mattresses only!’”

Another turning point came in 2012 when Chen talked a number of mattress manufacturers into selling him new mattresses directly, something they rarely did. Ironically, one of their concerns (beyond the reality he didn’t have a store or even a showroom, not to mention all the standard volume and credit issues) was that the relationship would inevitably be short-term because Chen would return to China as soon as he graduated.

“I told them I plan to stay here.”

A year later, he relocated the Hometown Mattress Limited showroom from his penthouse apartment living room to his first 1,000-square-foot retail space. That year, Chen also chalked up $300,000 in sales and hired his first sales representatives.

With business school graduation looming, he decided it was time to change his immigration status from student to permanent resident. Chen Qing had found the place he wanted to call home.

Which was when he smacked up against The Immigration Riddle. According to the rules of its game, Chen would have to give up his own business and find employment with someone else for a year in order to qualify for permanent residency.

Uh…

He consulted an immigration consultant and an immigration lawyer. They both told him he couldn’t get permanent residency on the basis of having created a successful and growing business that already employed people. Those were the rules, that was the game. “I was shocked,” he says.

Welcome to the Canadian Immigration Riddle.

Let’s start with a home truth. Atlantic Canada needs more people — lots more people — simply to avoid tipping over the ledge on which we’re now perched, and into the abyss of demographic basket-case irrelevance.

Don’t believe me? Believe Laurent Martel, the chief of Statistics Canada’s Demographic Analysis and Projections Section. In October, after sifting through decades of population statistics, crunching the numbers, studying the graphs and extrapolating the results, Martel released a blandsounding research paper entitled “Recent Changes in Demographic Trends in Canada.”

Its sobering Atlantic Canadian findings, however, are anything but bland.

• With the exception of a couple of minor blips (Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland and Labrador between 2008 and 2010), regional population growth has been close to zero since the late 1990s. In fact, between 2011 and 2014, Nova Scotia had the dubious distinction of being the only province in the country to record negative population growth. That’s right. There are fewer of us now than there were three years ago.

• Last year, for the first time since 1921 when statisticians started keeping such statistics, three provinces — Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick… all, you will duly note, on the east coast — registered more obituaries than birth notices.

• In 2014 in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, 18 per cent of the population was over 65. That’s the highest proportion of seniors in the country. Martel says we haven’t seen anything yet. By 2034, the proportion of seniors in Newfoundland and Labrador could reach 31 per cent. That’s one in three if you’re counting. And you should be.

• By contrast, in 2011 one in two residents of Alberta and British Columbia was a come-fromaway. The comparable statistic for Newfoundland and Labrador: fewer than one in 10. That’s not good news.

• In 2011, Newfoundland and Labrador had the lowest proportion in the country of citizens who were born outside of Canada: two per cent. Compare that to 30 per cent for Ontario. Projections show that gap will only widen as the future unfolds.

• To make bad matters worse, other Canadian provinces with similar small populations have done far better than we have at attracting immigrants to replace those who’ve died or disappeared. “The major increase in the population growth rate of Saskatchewan and Manitoba in recent years,” Martel’s report notes, “is primarily attributable to international migratory increases, as these two provinces have been attracting proportionally more international immigrants than in the past.” And certainly more than Atlantic Canada. Ouch.

• In 1961, Atlantic Canadians made up 10 per cent of the country’s population. Today, we’ve shrunk to just seven per cent and, by 2063, we’ll constitute only five per cent of the nation as a whole. Don’t even ask what that will mean for federal politics and policy making.

You certainly don’t need a whole Demographic Analysis and Projections Section to predict where this train wreck is heading. With an aging population, low-to-negative birth rate, under-employed working-age Atlantic Canadians fleeing down the well-worn path west in search of opportunity, and potential newcomers seeing their own advancement opportunities anywhere but here, the question becomes: who will be the last one out the door and will they still remember how to turn off the lights?

What to do?

It is, as the Riddler in the 1960s TV series Batman once explained (with a knowing nod to Winston Churchill), “a mystery, broken into a jigsaw puzzle, wrapped in a conundrum, hidden in a Chinese box… a riddle.”

There are, of course, parts of this riddle we can’t resolve. We can’t make people stop getting old. And we can’t outlaw birth control.

Which leaves us with finding ways to convince those who have left to return. But that won’t be easy until and unless they have jobs to return to. Which brings us logically to immigrants. But not just any immigrants: entrepreneurial immigrants to build the businesses and create the jobs, investor immigrants to make businesses happen and grow, so that we can all march off on the yellow brick road to the future.

Immigrants: Atlantic Canada’s new saviours.

In the 1990s, the Canadian government, recognizing the need to offset the country’s already declining birth rate and encourage economic growth, revamped its immigration policies to fluff up the number of targeted newcomers the country would accept. It also began to enter into fast-track deals with individual provinces to give them the ability to more quickly screen and nominate immigrants to match their own needs for skilled workers and their desires for new entrepreneurs and investors, not to forget to help spread that immigrant wealth from traditional big city destinations like Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal to the hinterlands, also known as us.

Most Canadian provinces, including all four Atlantic Canadian provinces, launched their own versions of nominee programs. Some, like Manitoba (the first province out of the gate in 1999) took the challenge seriously. Between 2009 and 2013, 140,000 immigrants (90,000 of them nominee program graduates), have chosen Manitoba as their new home and native land.

Atlantic Canada? Not so many.

In part, the difference is because Manitoba made immigration a priority and invested heavily in its success. In Atlantic Canada, the first provincial minister of immigration wasn’t even appointed until January 2006 — and that Nova Scotia minister, it must be noted, juggled his new immigration responsibilities with the tourism, culture and heritage portfolio while also holding down the jobs of minister of health promotion and minister responsible for the province’s Heritage Property Act. Immigration was not, it is fair to say, his sole, or even chief preoccupation.

Worse, our region’s political and business attitudes to immigration seemed, in the first decade of the 21st century, to focus mostly on what immigrants could do for us. Literally.

Consider. In December 2002, the then-Progressive Conservative government in Nova Scotia signed an un-tendered five-year contract with a Halifax-based company (and, not coincidentally, a Tory contributor) to become the province’s “designated worldwide marketing coordinator” for its new economic nominee program.

Under the program’s “creative” terms, a wannabe economic migrant first had to pony up $130,000 to get even a whiff of our salt sea air. Close to $30,000 of that went to the government contractor. “Approved” Nova Scotia companies that took in the newcomers for what was supposed to be a sixmonth “economic mentorship” got to skim $80,000 off what was left. And, as a bonus (since the remaining $20,000 was set aside so the would-be immigrants could effectively pay themselves for their mentorships), the companies got six months’ free labour from mainly highly skilled, already economically successful would-be immigrants.

Six hundred hopefuls anted up cash for Nova Scotia’s nominee program, but few got what they paid for, or often even an opportunity to work in their chosen field. One Iranian plastic surgeon, for example, was paired with a car-dealer “mentor.” Perhaps not surprisingly, many of the newcomers — most of whom had long since decamped to more welcoming jurisdictions — sued and the province ended up coughing up $30 million in refunds.

Or consider Prince Edward Island. Its immigrant partner program involved would-be immigrants investing up to $200,000 in local businesses that were, it turned out, mostly established to take their investments, thank you very much. It too ended in scandal.

As did a New Brunswick program that was shut down in 2011 after lawsuits from unhappy Chinese investors. Although the provincial government there had approved the business plans for nearly 400 companies under its nominee program, the auditor general later reported the government “was not able to give us an example of a successfully established business under this program.”

You won’t be surprised to know that our record of treating wouldbe immigrants as cash cows did not help attract more of them, or keep those who did come here from leaving as soon as possible. Reported the National Post in late 2011: “The Maritimes has some of the lowest retention rates for immigrants under the provincial nominee program, with some studies saying as few as half the immigrants nominated by the Maritime provinces end up settling there.”

Ooops.

Past time to press the reset button.

If the situation is bad all over Atlantic Canada, it is even worse in Nova Scotia where the projections are that — between the dying, and the leaving, and the not arriving — there will be 100,000 fewer people between 20 and 60 (21 per cent of the current working age population) available in 2036 than in 2010 to lift and tote, produce their share of kids, goods and services, and foot exponentially expanding bills for all the healthcare and public services an aging population will require.

That may explain why today in Nova Scotia all discussions about the province’s future are both urgent and also inevitably begin and end with “Ivany” — shorthand for Now or Never: an Urgent Call to Action for Nova Scotians — an almost two-year-old government-sponsored report that is one part doomsday calendar, one part hectoring scold, and many parts exhorting cheerleader.

In the fall of 2012, the then-NDP government appointed a blue-ribbon panel headed by Acadia University president Ray Ivany and handed it a sweeping mandate to figure out what the province needed to do to save itself from oblivion.

Its 87-page, 19-goal, 12-long-termstrategies report lays out a series of objectives for the next decade. Its dream can be summed up in the report’s notion that Nova Scotians will know they have re-invented themselves “when we will have come to know ourselves, and be known in Canada and beyond, as a progressive and dynamic province that embraces change and renewal.”

There’s clearly work to be done.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the report’s top three goals focus on the urgent need to goose up the population, including using interprovincial migration to generate a net gain of 1,000 Canadian newcomers and returnees each year. (Currently, Nova Scotia records a net loss of 800 a year). But the bigger-ticket objectives both have to do with attracting international newcomers. The report, for example, calls for Nova Scotia to begin “receiving annually its proportionate share (2.7 per cent) of all new international immigrants to Canada.” Translated into numbers, that means tripling (to 7,000) the current numbers of immigrants choosing to call the province home each year.

And (remember our friend Chen, he of the mattress emporium?) the report also aims to double from five to 10 the percentage of Chens graduating from the province’s postsecondary institutions who not only choose but are also encouraged to become permanent residents. While the province’s universities welcome 7,000 international students a year — and research suggests 60 per cent of them would like to stay — only about 50 currently choose to apply for permanent residency.

It won’t be easy. Immigration is a shared federal-provincial responsibility and Ottawa controls the numbers of provincial “nominee” immigrants each province is allowed per year. Those caps have traditionally been based on past performance (see above for past performance), but Nova Scotia has now revamped and improved its nominee programs, and the Harper government had begun to loosen its tight reins before the recent federal election. In September, in fact, Ottawa agreed to let the province fast-track an additional 300 skilled “express entry” immigrants into the province in 2015, and nearly doubled the total of 700 allowed under the program the year before. Nova Scotia’s overall immigration numbers for 2014, including nominees and their families, topped 2,670.

That’s better, but still a far cry from the 7,000-plus the Ivany report dreams of.

Which brings us to something else we need to talk about. It’s our own dark immigration secret.

We can argue, with some justification, that it’s only logical for immigrants to want to congregate in larger centres where there’s more opportunities generally, and likely to be a critical mass of people who look like them and with whom they can share both the traditions of their homeland and also celebrate the joys and commiserate about the difficulties of adapting to their new country.

That is all true. Up to a point.

But… But the Ivany report alluded to something more sinister at play. “Nova Scotians” — and you could almost certainly include residents of other Atlantic provinces in its sweeping generalization — “appear to be very positive about newcomers from other parts of Canada but somewhat less welcoming to immigrants. There is a segment of the population that believes that immigrants take away jobs from other Nova Scotians… [And] there clearly are additional barriers stemming from negative attitudes and even racism when it comes to welcoming new people into our communities and hiring people ‘from away.’”

“Policy alone can’t explain why our region has not attracted a proportionate share of new immigrants to the country,” agreed Kevin Stoddart in a recent newspaper op-ed. Stoddart is a managing partner of Knightsbridge Robertson Surrette, a corporate recruitment firm whose job is, in fact, matching candidates with jobs. Concludes Stoddart: “I believe the biggest issue is really attitude.”

Don Mills of Corporate Research Associates would agree. His firm recently surveyed provincial attitudes to immigration and found that 41 per cent of Nova Scotians favoured keeping immigration at its current level while another 25 per cent would prefer that we accept even fewer immigrants! Laments Mills: “The current majority view of immigration — specifically on the perception of cultural diversity and the number of immigrants needed to better serve the economic needs of Nova Scotia — is a clear barrier to the future economic success of the province.”

“I don’t think it is malicious discrimination,” adds Stoddart. “Instead, it is the preference to stick with what is familiar, comfortable and often easiest.”

But easiest for whom. And for how long?

The immigration museum at Halifax’s Pier 21 was a symbolically appropriate place to hold today’s end-of-October Nova Scotia “immigration summit” — for good and bad reasons.

For starters, the original Pier 21 was the ocean liner terminal and immigration shed where, from 1928 to 1971, more than one million immigrants first set foot in Canada. Most of them, of course, were just passing through on the journey to their final Canadian destination. Today, few new Canadians even touch down in Atlantic Canada on their way to somewhere else.

The goal of today’s gathering is to change that. The summit has brought together 175 representatives from municipalities, businesses, postsecondary educational institutions and organizations that work with new immigrants to talk about how best to encourage more immigrants to choose Nova Scotia.

Its three co-chairs bring their own symbolism to the event.

Lena Diab is Nova Scotia’s first ever full-time minister of immigration. But she was also, importantly, the first president of the province’s Multicultural Youth Association and, later, the first female president of the Canadian Lebanon Society.

Nova Scotia’s 6,500-strong Lebanese community, you should know, is responsible for one of Atlantic Canada’s immigration and business success narratives.

Among those successes, of course, is Wadih Fares, the president of WM Fares Group, a prominent Halifax developer, the Honorary Lebanese Consul for the Maritimes and now — not co-incidentally — the co-chair of a Premier’s Advisory Council on Immigration. “Our ancestors came here peddling,” Fares has recalled. “They cleaned floors and their kids got an education — and they are the ones building the city today. Our legacy and interest is to build nice buildings, to contribute to the change of the face of the city.”

Fares’ advisory council cochair is Colin Dodds, the former president of Saint Mary’s University. Dodds too is an immigrant, having arrived from England in 1982. But, perhaps more significantly, Dodds spearheaded Saint Mary’s two-decade transformation from a largely local Catholic college into a globally recognized, businessfocused international university where close to half its 7,500 students now study commerce, and half of those are international students. Saint Mary’s now boasts students from 100 different countries, including a significant percentage from China. Dodds began making regular visits and educational and economic connections there during the 1980s.

Today’s summit — the culmination of eight brainstorming sessions around the province last summer — is mostly a cheerleading affair. It’s a celebration of some significant accomplishments over the past two years, including introducing new streams for entrepreneurs and international students, doubling Nova Scotia’s nominee cap and improving services for newcomers — and a call to greater action.

“The goal,” Diab declared, “is to build on the momentum that we have in this province around immigration, around growing our population, around (the idea) that immigration will push us forward economically…Immigration is really hot and Nova Scotia is on the map.”

Diab herself made the case that it’s now time for Nova Scotia to take charge of its own immigration future. “I don’t see why we need to have [caps] in Nova Scotia,” she said. She plans to make that pitch to the new federal Liberal government. “I want flexibility, and we want more control over our own program, more than what we’ve ever had in this province. And I believe we’ve proved ourselves.”

Not everyone is going to jump aboard the immigration bandwagon, Dodds admits, but he believes the conversation has changed. “Immigration is hot. Yes, there are some negatives — confront them, deal with them, move on.”

Chen Qing has done exactly that. Although the rules for students seeking permanent residency have now changed — thanks, in part, to publicity about his situation, and efforts by Dodds and others to streamline the process — the changes came too late for him. He is currently, cheerfully working through his residency requirement as a manager, residential mortgages, for TD Bank.

But he hasn’t abandoned his entrepreneurial dreams. In 2014, Hometown Furniture and Mattress Limited — the “Furniture” is new — doubled its showroom space and, in 2015, opened a 6,000 square-foot retail store in downtown Halifax. Hometown, he boasts, “provides service in five languages (English, Mandarin Chinese, Korean, Arabic and Hindi) and [offers] the lowest prices in town.”

And he isn’t finished yet. His goal when he returns to his own business full-time, he says, will be to create a network of stores, some of which he will own and some of which will be franchised.

Chen isn’t going anywhere. He’s here to stay.

Would that there were many more like him.

2 Comments to “The real threat to Atlantic Canada’s economic security isn’t who you probably think it is – neither is the solution”

  1. This was a really fantastic, well written article. I hope people realize the overwhelming benefits to welcoming both immigrants and refugees into the Atlantic provinces.

  2. Being a former immigrant who grew up in Halifax and promptly left, this article is pretty accurate. Try as I might, the opportunities for immigrants just wasn’t there; being passed over for positions despite being well qualified time after time just sucked. Moving from Halifax to Toronto more than instantly doubled my income at the time, not to mention actual diversity. People on the east coast are great on an individual level, but as a whole, it just feels unwelcoming.

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