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A Canadian flag flies from an apartment balcony in the Riverdale neighbourhood of Hamilton, Ontario on Tuesday, May 19, 2015. Riverdale is a highrise immigrant neighbourhood, third largest concentration of immigrants in Canada, and growing fast. (Peter Power For The Globe and Mail)
A Canadian flag flies from an apartment balcony in the Riverdale neighbourhood of Hamilton, Ontario on Tuesday, May 19, 2015. Riverdale is a highrise immigrant neighbourhood, third largest concentration of immigrants in Canada, and growing fast. (Peter Power For The Globe and Mail)

Why newcomers are beginning to bypass Canada’s big cities Add to ...

When Zernab Yazdani, an easygoing college graduate, talks about his childhood years in Riverdale – a cluster of aging apartment towers and townhouse complexes encircled by single-storey mini-malls – what tweaks his memories is not the ever-shifting mix of languages and cultures. Riverdale’s 7,500 residents were mostly born in other countries, as his parents were; only one in five speaks English as a first language.

Rather, it is the unspoiled nature just beyond the concrete. “It was a great place to grow up – we had tobogganing in the winter and trails in the forests, the lake right nearby and a lot of space to play.” The hiking trails, along with the air of mutual co-operation among the newcomers here, have drawn him back as an adult.

This could be one of the well-known high-rise immigrant districts on the outskirts of Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver: Shop signs are in Russian, Spanish, Hindi and Urdu; windows above stores advertise Sikh and Hindu temples, Russian Orthodox churches and mosques; the public primary school, with so many kids from the Indian subcontinent, recently built a cricket pitch where a baseball diamond would usually go.

But it isn’t. The apartment Mr. Yazdani shares with his wife looks across a leafy ravine to Stoney Creek, a largely agricultural community. Riverdale, a fast-expanding enclave that is, by one measure, Canada’s third most immigrant-heavy settlement, is in the eastern end of Hamilton, far from the city’s old steel mills and a stone’s throw from the vineyards of Niagara Region.

Hamilton is doing everything it can to attract people like the Yazdanis. In fact, there is a growing effort by many mid-sized, post-industrial cities to spark a new wave of immigration. Also struggling, places such as Moncton, Trois-Rivières and Kitchener are doing everything they can to open their doors, from adopting their own de facto immigration policies to, in some cases, even going abroad to recruit new residents.

While the great majority of Canada’s immigrants still settle in greater Toronto and Vancouver, secondary cities have begun to grab an increasingly larger share.

In Canada’s rust belt, mass immigration is increasingly seen as the hope for recovery.

A thriving destination for newcomers in the twentieth century, Hamilton has been in a long period of decline since its heavy industry dried up. To city manager Chris Murray, a revived immigration program was the only way out.

“We kept keep running into the problems of an aging population and a shrinking workforce and the question of how we’re going to pay for things in the coming years with fewer taxpayers …,” he says. “So you’d better hope we’re going to have a growing economy. And how that can be possible without immigration is hard to imagine.”

So, in 2012, Global Hamilton was created – a new department dedicated to making Steel City an immigrant city once again. The following year, the department’s head, Sarah Wayland, published a two-volume Immigrant Attraction Action Plan that was enthusiastically adopted by a majority on city council.

The city then went to work, printing a newcomer’s guide to finding housing in 14 languages as well as launching a simultaneous-translation service so city resources could be obtained in dozens of languages. It also created an online “immigration portal” to hook immigrants up with opportunities and a “soft landing program” to hook foreign high-tech businesses up with McMaster University and area community colleges.

Reaching out, the city also advertised itself abroad and set up a program that draws on local immigrant networks to get the word out overseas about housing and small-business opportunities. And these plans are having some success. Newcomers are discovering not only housing bargains but often better opportunities.

Mr. Yazdani’s family is typical of this new pattern. His father moved here in the 1990s, after having immigrated from Lahore, Pakistan, because the rent was half as much as Toronto’s and because he wanted to upgrade his educational qualifications at Mohawk College.

Now 23, Zernab followed his father’s path: After high school, he moved to Toronto for college and got married, but then grew frustrated with the rent and isolation of the big city. So he moved back to Riverdale, found an apartment in one of its low-rent, somewhat run-down buildings and got a job with an online customer-assistance company.

Things aren’t perfect – most of the accommodation is rental and many tenants wish there were condos and houses to buy, and it’s a long walk to the bus station – but Riverdale “a really great place to live,” he says. “Everything is within a 30-minute bus ride, and you have great forests and ravines and trails and the rent is affordable.”

Other communities look districts like Riverdale with envy: Not all post-industrial cities are having an easy time attracting newcomers. It turns out that pleasant neighbourhoods and small-business advice, while helpful, may not be the big draw.

Margaret Walton-Roberts, a geographer with the Balsillie School of International Affairs at Wilfrid Laurier University, has analyzed the success and failure of local immigration policies in “second-tier cities.” Her focus is Kitchener-Waterloo, a former manufacturing hub that now faces challenges a lot like Hamilton’s – a smaller, older population that is straining the city’s fiscal resources.

She and other scholars have found that those with a decent chance of attracting and keeping immigrants are the ones with universities, colleges or teaching hospitals. There’s very little influx to cities without post-secondary education. So Hamilton (home to a university, a teaching hospital and two colleges) and Kitchener-Waterloo (two universities and a college) have done well – especially because immigrants tend to seek home ownership at high rates and find houses increasingly less affordable in big cities. A smaller place with a campus hits the sweet spot.

“The role of the university is a really interesting one,” Dr. Walton-Roberts says. “As we were doing the research into second-tier cities and interviewing new immigrants, what came out was this interesting intersection between new immigrants who were also students.”

A similar phenomenon is taking place south of the border. Neil Ruiz, a scholar with the Washington-based Brookings Institution, has found that the rust-belt cities of the northern U.S. that have avoided disaster since the factories shut down also are the ones with universities, because foreign students are the only group interested in settling. Some, such as Cleveland, have cast a wide net, setting up active immigration policies, including offices in foreign capitals, but only the students come.

The phenomenon is much larger in Canada, in part because Canadian policy allows student-visa immigrants to stick around after graduation, usually for as long as they’ve spent studying, and seek employment or start a business.

There’s a largely unnoticed trend behind this: Increasingly, immigrants to Canada are trying to use student visas as their way in. Because Ottawa is giving priority to post-secondary student visas as its favoured immigrant class, and because universities are bulking up abroad to compensate for a domestic enrolment slump, and because university towns such as Waterloo and Hamilton are pushing to attract immigrants, the student visa is seen as a golden ticket.

“We’ve identified this parallel process,” Dr. Walton-Roberts says, “of people applying to come to Canada to study at the same time as they were applying for immigrant status, and they were aware of the fact that finding a job and having your credentials recognized was somewhat difficult for immigrants to Canada.

“So they thought, ‘Okay, we’re going to come, we’re going to study, we’ll have a Canadian credential and then, if we get status, we can be ready to get into the labour market with a Canadian credential.”

And immigrant-heavy districts like Riverdale have become central to this phenomenon. As in big cities, smaller places find that formerly working-class neighbourhoods outside their core areas have become focal points for new Canadians.

McMaster geographer Richard Harris and his team recently published a report, Neighbourhod Change in Hamilton since 1970, which shows that the landing pads for immigration have shifted dramatically from the downtown districts around the steel mills to the low-cost housing neighbourhoods on the edge of town – taking with them the focus of poverty (for new immigrants, even with university credentials, start out quite poor).

This shows the new reality of immigrants: They aren’t industrial workers (although many still wind up in blue-collar work) but students, service workers, entrepreneurs and small businesspeople. They settle in places like Riverdale to have fellow immigrants around them for mutual support. But their dependence on more precarious forms of employment and risky small-business ventures means they also need help with education and social services to make their start.

The heartbreaking experience of seeing families lose their life savings in marginal business gambles, says Hamilton’s Mr. Murray, was one reason the city published new-business advice booklets in several languages and created a network to help immigrants with startups.

The smaller cities don’t offer the huge clusters of fellow expats who can help in the larger cities. But they are more stable and affordable.

“What’s different here is that most people want to stay,” says Mr.Yazdani, as he walks briskly home from the bus after a day of work.

“It’s not perfect, but it’s more of a tight-knit community than I had in Toronto. It’s a smaller place, but it feels like home.”

Doug Saunders is The Globe and Mail’s international affairs columnist.

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