When devising a much-needed method to attract more immigrants to the province, the Manitoba government in 1997 managed to develop a “best-practices” model that has since become the envy of other provinces.
One outcome of the model may have been a significant increase in the province’s population over the years, but another result was that Manitoba showed the world that it was truly interested in the well-being and integration of immigrants into the provincial community.
In 1997, Manitoba had four per cent of the nation’s population, but only received 1.8 per cent of the 200,000 immigrants arriving each year in Canada.
At the time, most newcomers flocked to cities such as Toronto or Vancouver, and for the most part ignored smaller centres such as Winnipeg.
With a scarcity of skilled workers coming to the province, then Premier Gary Filmon’s government decided something had to be done to offset the inequity in immigration numbers.
Following year-long negotiations, the Conservative government in Manitoba and the Liberal government in Ottawa signed two ground-breaking agreements that created a provincial nominee program (PNP) and funding for the settlement of immigrants, with both programs administered by the province.
Under the June 1998 agreement, which was the first of its kind in Canada, the federal government agreed to provide the provincial government with $7 million to help settle workers and their families in Manitoba. The province could then direct money to the community groups, churches and ethnic groups best able to provide the services that allowed immigrants to adjust to a new life in a new country and province, including providing English-language instruction.
The new method of attracting immigrants to Manitoba had an immediate impact. In September 1998, three families from Germany, the first of 50, arrived to settle in the Pembina Triangle of Steinbach, Winkler, Morden, Carman and Altona. The immigrants, originally from Russia but of German extraction, were targeted for job vacancies that couldn’t be filled in the local manufacturing sector. The Winkler Chamber of Commerce asked for help to fill the vacancies and the province responded through its PNP.
When the recruiting was completed, 300 immigrants, of whom 200 were children, had settled in the province.
In the first year of the new agreement, 3,004 people immigrated to Manitoba. Last year, the number of immigrants had increased five-fold to 15,954. As a result of the PNP, immigrants have come to Winnipeg from 137 countries and speak 120 languages.
“They could have gone anywhere in the world, but they chose us,” Manitoba Immigration and Multicultural Minister Christine Melnick told 30 members of WinnipegREALTORS® and the Manitoba Real Estate Association (MREA) at a special meeting last Friday held at MREA’s Realty Place on Inkster Boulevard.
“We’ve grown up,” she added. “We’re now a world-class city and we wouldn’t have done it without attracting 100,000 people (since the PNP came into effect).”
By all measurements, the PNP and accompanying settlement services has been extremely successful. It became a “best-practice” model that attracted the attention of other provinces. British Columbia signed its own agreement with Ottawa, and other provinces were lining up to negotiate similar programs with the federal government.
According to figures compiled by the provincial government, immigration added nearly $60 million to Manitoba’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2011.
But without consultation and quite unexpectedly, the federal government notified the Manitoba government that it was taking over settlement services and the $35 million the province had received from Ottawa to provide services to newcomers. The B.C. government was similarily notified.
Melnick said she and Premier Greg Selinger were shocked by the unilateral announcement.
She called federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney and the premier called Prime Minister Stephen Harper expressing a desire to have the decision reversed.
“This is the way it’s going to be” was the response two days later from both the immigration minister and prime minister, according to Melnick.
Kenney later said the federal government will continue to provide necessary services to immigrants to Manitoba, while bringing all provincial and territorial programs under federal jurisdiction.
But there are distinct differences between the announced federal immigration policy and the province’s settlement services. For example, the federal government will require immigrants to undergo language proficiency testing (evidence of proficiency is required when applying to come to Canada), a pool of vetted skilled labour will be created from which businesses can pick and chose, the temporary workers program will be expanded, and there will be less emphasis on family reunification.
According to an April 20 federal Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) news release, the change is to an “economic immigration system ... to better reflect the importance of younger immigrants with Canadian work experience and better language skills.”
“The changes I’ve announced are to ensure that immigrants who come to Canada can contribute to the economy quickly,” said Kenney in the press release. “And the cornerstone is being able to speak one of Canada’s official languages. That is why the government is also proposing changes to the citizenship rules so that new citizens have the language abilities they need to succeed.”
The federal government will not be eliminating each province’s nominee program, but the programs will be rendered ineffectual, since any immigrant nominated by a province must then make a separate application to and be approved by CIC using the new regulations and a cap system established by Ottawa, beginning on July 1. Under Manitoba’s PNP, the province approved the nominee and CIC then issued a visa at the request of the province, allowing the nominee to immediately enter Manitoba.
And, of course, settlement services, which catered to the specific needs of immigrants arriving in Manitoba under the PNP, will no longer be within the province’s jurisdiction.
In an April 19 speech to the Halifax Chamber of Commerce, Kenney said it was unfortunate that some provinces “have been nominating people with no official language proficiency.
“And when that happens ... Those people, in the long run, probably are set for failure in our economy ... Good luck keeping your head above water in this modern marketplace with no English-language skills. So this is to protect them and to ensure their future.”
Melnick said English language proficiency is not emphasized under the province’s settlement services.
“Do you need a Ph.D to slaughter hogs?” she asked rhetorically.
Melnick wondered how the federal takeover would affect bringing foreign workers to Brandon and Neepawa, where hog-processing plants exist that are heavily dependent on immigrants to fill jobs.
“When immigrants come to Manitoba, they start to learn English right away. They come with zero, but we bring them up to a higher level,” she added.
Melnick said the new requirement for skilled labour being vetted and then chosen by businesses may work well for large-scale oil sands corporations, but Manitoba is a province of small- and medium-sized businesses.
Melnick wondered how small Manitoba businesses can compete with big companies and bigger cities when seeking skilled workers.
“We’re not a boom-town province,” she added.
“I think it’s kind of disgusting to be bidding on individuals,” Melnick commented.
“As a group,” said REALTOR® Kourosh Doustshenas, himself an immigrant who has been in Canada for 23 years, “we’re going to be one of the first affected. It’s a huge issue for the real estate industry.
“If the federal government makes its changes, very soon it will affect every homeowner in Manitoba,” he added. “People have to realize a slowdown in immigration will change the value of housing.”
Peter Squire, the market analyst for WinnipegREALTORS®, said immigration is a “big driver of existing and new home sales.”
According to provincial statistics, within six years of their arrival, most immigrants become homeowners. In addition, 85 per cent who settle under the PNP are working within three months, and most end up working in their chosen fields within three to six years. And 84 per cent of the immigrants brought to Manitoba remain in the province. “You have to look at the whole picture,” said Doustshenas. “The bottom line is that it’s not as simple as handing back the cheque to the federal government.”
Doustshenas, who was born in Iran, but came to Canada after working as an engineer in India for 10 years, said he has friends who came to Manitoba under the PNP and deals with real estate clients who have moved to Manitoba through the same program.
“I know first-hand from them how important the program was to them,” he explained. “They were fast-tracked and came to Manitoba after only waiting a year or a year and a half.
“If they try to come under the new federal regulations, they will probably have to wait for seven, eight or 10 years before they’re accepted.
“And these people are all needed,” he said. “They’re engineers, plumbers, welders, doctors and nurses.”
The REALTORS® attending the meeting with Melnick expressed concern that the level of immigration needed to maintain Manitoba’s economic growth will not be sustained when the federal government takes over the immigration system.
Melnick said retention of the province’s immigration programs is a non-partisan issue, as the PNP and accompanying settlement services was started by a provincial Conservative government reaching an agreement with a Liberal federal government, which is now administered by an NDP provincial government.
“Gary Filmon successfully asked the federal government to give us the opportunity to sell Manitoba to the world,” said Melnick.
“This is about how we continue to build the province,” she added. “We have a tremendous success story, and we want our success to continue.”
Under the program facing elimination, the federal government provides about $35 million annually for settlement services, the province contributes just $1.2 million, but it spends another $20 million on education, health, family services and training to support immigrants.
“We work hard to attract people and keep them,” said Melnick.
Melnick said she doesn’t believe the federal takeover of immigration is a done deal, as there is still time before the change comes into effect.
“We want to re-open discussions with the feds,” Melnick said. “We hope cooler heads will prevail.”
In the meantime, the provincial immigration minister will continue to meet with interested groups, such as WinnipegREALTORS® and the MREA, to enlist their help in lobbying Ottawa to retain the PNP.
“It’s important to make your voice heard,” she added. “I believe we can win this.”
“We’ll get public support on this issue,” said Doustshenas. “I’m sure of it, because it affects all Manitobans.”