Between now and 2021, a million jobs are expected to go unfilled across Canada. Ottawa is making reforms to the immigration system but isn't going far enough. We need to radically boost immigration numbers. With the right people, Canada can be an innovative world power. Without them, we'll drain away our potential.
1. The Manitoba experiment
Arriving into Steinbach, Man., an hour southeast of Winnipeg, you find a quiet, conservative community, the kind of place that has twice as many churches (22) as traffic lights (11). But continue on and you see some sights you might not expect in a prairie hamlet of 13,500: a Paraguayan food store; two Filipina-run nail salons; and, when you reach the western edge, a 25-acre soccer complex that has become the hub of local life.
As an outpost of the global game in the geographic centre of the nation of hockey, the soccer arena is a symbol of the transformation that has swept through Steinbach in the new millennium – one that could be a lesson to the whole country.
Not long ago, in the late 1990s, Steinbach feared that it might join rural Canada's casualty list. Young people were leaving for opportunities in Winnipeg or Calgary, and even businesses that were thriving, such as a window manufacturer, could not find enough skilled workers to keep up with demand.
Local leaders, says mayor Chris Goertzen, were searching for a way forward. Then they caught wind of what was happening a hundred kilometres away, in a place with similar problems.
In Winkler, Man., an immigrant from Paraguay named Adele Dyck, who sat on the Chamber of Commerce, heard through family connections about skilled workers in Germany who were interested in coming to Canada, but couldn't qualify under immigration rules that favoured university graduates. She contacted the federal and provincial governments to say she would get local employers to guarantee jobs if the Germans were admitted. They agreed, and what began with 50 immigrants in Winkler became in 1998 the country's first “provincial nominee” program: Manitoba was the first province other than Quebec to gain the power to select and resettle a portion of each year's new immigrants for itself.
And that is how Steinbach found its solution. The owner of the Loewen window plant contacted Ms. Dyck about finding 150 to 200 skilled German employees.
“They wanted people who were trainable, people who were very capable of learning,” says Ms. Dyck, who is now a professional immigration consultant. “Even though not many spoke English, language was never really a problem. At some point, they had over 300 of our clients working for them.”
That was just the beginning. Since the mid-1990s, Steinbach has grown by 60 per cent, one of the fastest rates in the country. Last year, the region welcomed about 900 immigrants from 40 countries into industries as diverse as pharmaceuticals, trucking and hog farming. The city had to expand its industrial park and then open a new one. National chain grocers, restaurants and department stores are setting up shop. Steinbach has been revitalized.
What ailed the Steinbach of old is the creeping malignancy that threatens all of Canada today. The shortage of skilled labour in the Alberta oil sands and Saskatchewan potash mines has become a national issue. But a similar lack of people power is plaguing the ambitious but underdeveloped secondary cities of Ontario, and in Atlantic Canada a third of the population will be over 65 in less than two decades. The Conference Board of Canada estimates that over the next 10 years, there will be a million jobs going wanting across the country. This shortage is a drag on Canada's potential to innovate and compete into the future.
Unless Canadians suddenly start having radically larger families, the only logical answer is the same as Steinbach's: The country needs to dramatically increase its immigration levels – perhaps even double them, at least in the case of immigrants in the “economic” category (which includes skilled workers, provincial nominees, those with prior Canadian experience, entrepreneurs, investors and their families).
The nation's great challenge for the 21st century will be not only to locate and attract the people Canada needs, give them rich opportunities and integrate them into communities, but also to understand and embrace the ways they will reshape this country.