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(SHAUN BEST/SHAUN BEST/REUTERS)
(SHAUN BEST/SHAUN BEST/REUTERS)

Our Time to Lead

Why Canada needs a flood of immigrants Add to ...

That kind of change does not come without friction – there have been moments of culture shock, particularly in local classrooms. But over all, the Russian-Germans, as locals call them, are well accepted in Steinbach and beyond. Many apprenticed in the trades in Europe, and every day, Mr. Huese says, you can see the steady flow of their pickup trucks heading down the highway for building sites in Winnipeg.

Evelyna Prochorow, 21, came from Kazakhstan by way of what her family found a crowded, unwelcoming Germany. She was 8, the sixth of 13 children, and barely spoke a word of English. A decade later, she graduated near the top of her high-school class. She is a broker at Harvest Insurance, her sister is a legal assistant nearby, and the evangelical church that is dear to them is here (with more under construction). Unlike many small-town Canadians her age, Ms. Prochorow has no desire to be anywhere else.

2. Bridging gaps on the oil patch

While Steinbach is the small-town microcosm of Canada's demographic crisis, the epicentre is in Alberta, where oil-fuelled expansion is voraciously eating up all the skilled labour it can find and hungers for more.

“Labour shortages are going to be the single biggest impediment to economic growth in Alberta for the foreseeable future,” says Ben Brunnen, chief economist at the Calgary Chamber of Commerce. “At the end of the day, we just don't have the people to fill the jobs that are being created. … We can't alleviate our labour needs without tapping into immigration.”

On the southwestern outskirts of Edmonton, lilted speech fills the trailer where the cladders – men who install metal roofs and exteriors – stop for a quick morning break. Of the 10 men from Clark Builders who are erecting a new police station, only one is a Canadian, from Newfoundland. The remainder are sign-bearers for the British Isles, their English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish roots displayed by flags on their helmets and, for Irishman Brian O'Donnell, a tousle of red hair that slips out from beneath his hard hat.

To Canada, they are temporary foreign workers. To Europe, they are economic emigrants.

Tom and Jimmy Sutton are brothers from Brackley, England, both working on the Clark site. Another brother works at a different Edmonton construction company. They have homes, cars and girlfriends here. And a fourth brother, who's in information technology, has this very morning been accepted to a “working holiday” program that will bring him to Alberta, too.

“Honestly, the best decision I've ever made in my life, by far,” Jimmy says. “Back home, you're struggling. There's no work around, so you get behind on your bills. It's hard to get by. Over here, you can work hard and get paid well for it, and you have a better quality of life.”

Prairie fire in the job market

Western Canada is drawing temporary workers from across the planet: Polish welders, Filipino retail workers, Mexican electricians and Chilean mechanics. As they arrive, stepping off planes into blizzards and uncertainty, they are changing the complexion of the western Canadian work force.

Clark Builders currently employs 31 foreign workers out of its total of 770, and is actively seeking to add dozens more – carpenters, project managers and more cladders. With a raft of oil-sands work about to begin, the company says, it could easily double its number of foreign workers by year's end, joining a broad industry push.

That is not to say transatlantic hiring is simple. Earlier this year, Clark Builders flew managers to Manchester, hoping to find 15 workers. They had posted ads and received 125 résumés. After 27 interviews, they made offers to 12 people and got nine. For a first attempt, says Gerald Clark, the company's senior manager of human resources, they were pleased: “I would suspect we'll be back there later this year.”

In theory, rising wages and job opportunities should attract plenty of Canadian workers to Alberta, and training and technology should be applied to make the work force more productive. But those economic adjustments take time that Canada may not have.

“We know from the previous round of big expansions out in the oil patch,” says Queen's University economist Charles Beach, that “the supply of skills just doesn't grow quickly enough. The price of expansion became so high that many just tailed it off. They've learned from that and don't want to see it again.”

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