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Temporary foreign worker Brian O'Donnell, from Ireland, carries a sheet of cladding while working on the construction of a new police station in Edmonton on April 30, 2012. In Alberta's stretched labour market, some employers have had to turn to overseas labour. (Jason Franson/Jason Franson for The Globe and Mail)
Temporary foreign worker Brian O'Donnell, from Ireland, carries a sheet of cladding while working on the construction of a new police station in Edmonton on April 30, 2012. In Alberta's stretched labour market, some employers have had to turn to overseas labour. (Jason Franson/Jason Franson for The Globe and Mail)

The Immigrant Answer

Is Canada's brand strong enough to attract the immigrants it wants? Add to ...

This is part of The Immigrant Answer –The Globe's series on the future of immigration in Canada. Read the original story here.

Stefania Cruz is a catch: 24, ambitious, bright and fluent in English as well as Spanish. In a year, she will complete her degree in industrial engineering at the Monterrey Institute of Technology in Tampico, northeast of Mexico City – training that is desperately sought in Canada's oil sands.

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For the past four months, she has worked as a research intern in Vancouver, beefing up her language skills and earning a gleaming reference from her employer. But will she be back?

Upon graduation, Ms. Cruz will decide between Mexico's two northern neighbours. “The United States feels like a land of opportunity,” she concedes, a place with better job prospects and bigger salaries. But Canada feels more like home: “The people are very nice, open and willing to help you. They don't care where I come from.”

They also need her.

The challenges presented by Canada's aging population, low birth rate and growing labour shortages make a strong case for a significant boost in immigration. But the country also should pay particular attention to those it would like to come.

As well as young people like Stefania Cruz, there is a high demand for skilled workers such as Bernard Cross, an Irish heavy-machinery mechanic with 27 years' experience who will arrive in Saskatchewan in two weeks to repair trucks – and take up a post his new boss in Lloydminster has been trying to fill for three years.

Also required are dynamic innovators and job creators such as Sander de Block, who is commercial director of Tocardo International, a Dutch developer of hydro-turbine technology, and currently considering whether to set up shop in Nova Scotia.

Last year, Canada brought in 156,000 economic immigrants and their dependents, along with 191,000 temporary workers, and many more would like to follow suit. But are they the cream of the 640 million global migrants seeking a new home every year?

As countries jockey to lure the most creative and skilled employees – the ones who will drive the knowledge economy and energize its aging society – Canada can't simply wait for them to appear. It must step up the effort to sell the Canadian brand around the world – to get those with the most talent to see it not just as a land of tolerance for diversity, but as a nucleus of economic opportunity.

“We are getting the best who apply, but are those who apply the best?” asks Howard Duncan of the Ottawa-based International Metropolis Project, which researches migration and diversity. “At some point, especially looking at Canada's competitiveness in the international migration market, we are going to have to look at immigration as national – as opposed to a federal, provincial, employer or university project – and put those frictions behind us because there is more at stake.”

The Last Best West revisited a century later

History seems to be repeating itself. In the 1870s, much as now, the West was booming but short on bodies. So the federal government launched an advertising campaign called The Last Best West, targeting farmers and labourers in Britain, the United States and Europe with the offer of free land.

The recruiters ran ads in newspaper, launched touring exhibitions, distributed promotional posters, even covertly bribed steamship ticket agents to pitch Canada to travellers – all to sell a sprawling countryside where a clever newcomer could make a fortune.

The campaign was a success: By 1900, about 1.6 million immigrants had arrived, a number that doubled by 1910 – enough to populate newly formed Alberta and Saskatchewan, and to dampen any expansionist tendencies lurking to the south.

Even so, there were concerns about the “quality” of the newcomers – or, as prairie clergyman J.S. Woodsworth, future leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, put it: “Within the past decade, a nation has been born. ... But how shall we weld this heterogeneous mass into one people?”

Leap ahead 140 years, and Canada's goal is the same, although the groups being targeted are not, and the global landscape has changed dramatically. In the race for the brightest, the United States is way out in front – according to a recent Gallup survey, 23 per cent of all potential migrants want to chase the American dream. Canada ranks third, the preferred destination of 7 per cent, and has fierce rivals in Britain, Australia, New Zealand and, barring recent economic circumstances, most of Europe.

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