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Immigrants to Canada are increasingly bypassing Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver in favour of smaller cities, according to new census data – a product of both provincial immigration strategies and the rising cost of living in major urban centres.

The latest release from Statistics Canada shows that while the country’s three largest cities have the greatest proportion of immigrants overall, their shares have been in decline. The Atlantic region has tripled its share of immigrants since 2006, and urban centres such as Kitchener-Cambridge-Waterloo in Ontario and Ottawa-Gatineau have also increased their shares of the immigrant population significantly.

This shift away from Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver “has to do with the changing nature of big cities and how they affect the cost-benefit perspective of new immigrants,” said Jennifer Elrick, an associate professor of sociology at McGill University who studies immigration policy.

Religious affiliation, big city draw on the decline, Statistics Canada census finds

“Immigrants want what any Canadian-born person wants: good job opportunities for economic and social mobility – especially intergenerational mobility for their kids – and a sense of belonging in their communities,” Prof. Elrick said.

A major obstacle to that kind of integration is access to housing. Toronto and Vancouver reported the highest rates of unaffordable housing in 2021, and immigrants tend to spend a larger portion of their income on shelter costs than the non-immigrant population, according to census data.

Much of the growth in immigration outside the big cities is also because of efforts by provinces, to which the federal government has given more control over recruiting immigrants.

In 2021, 56.3 per cent of immigrants in Canada were admitted through the economic stream, and one-third of them came through the provincial nominee program, which allows individual provinces to directly recruit skilled immigrants to meet local labour needs.

In Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Prince Edward Island, about nine out of 10 economic immigrants came through the program. A large majority were also recruited to the rest of the Atlantic region’s provincial nominee programs as well as programs in Yukon and the Northwest Territories.

Akash Patel, 30, began his new life in Swift Current, population 16,750, this past March after being admitted through the provincial nominee program in Saskatchewan. It was a far cry from life in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, the Indian metropolis of eight million in which he’d grown up but had one important thing going for it: His sister and brother-in-law lived there. The two – who recently became parents – settled in town a few years earlier in a two-bedroom apartment, which is also Mr. Patel’s home for now.

Provincial nominee programs assign points to applicants based on various criteria and Mr. Patel easily racked up enough points to gain entry to Saskatchewan. He has a master’s degree in computer science, several years of work experience in his field, high English proficiency, close family relatives in the province and is in the most coveted age range of 22 to 34.

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Akash Patel, 30, began his new Canadian life in Swift Current this past March after being admitted through the provincial nominee program in Saskatchewan.Chelsey Krause/The Globe and Mail

In his periodic job searches, Mr. Patel has found more IT project management jobs and better-paying ones at companies in Toronto, where he has cousins, but one of the requirements of the provincial nominee program is that he must stay in Saskatchewan for two years – and he wants to.

In his seven months on the Prairies, he’s fallen in love with his new home. It’s a 2½-hour drive to Regina, where he can have a good meal at Darbar, the best Indian restaurant he’s found so far, but Swift Current has a lot of appeal: He likes the quiet, he enjoys swimming in the lake, and despite the town’s small size, he’s been able to celebrate every holiday he did back home with the local Indian community, which is growing quickly.

There were 260 Indian immigrants living in Swift Current in 2021, 70 per cent of whom had settled there in the preceding decade. India has now become the top source country for immigrants to Canada – 18.6 per cent are from there, followed by the Philippines (11.4 per cent) and China (8.9 per cent).

Those contemplating a move to a place like Swift Current (or Charlottetown, or Brandon, Man.) can learn about the application process and what life in those communities is like just by watching YouTube videos uploaded by recent immigrants.

For decades, migrants would land in one of the big cities and if they struggled, would then look elsewhere in Canada, but that has changed.

“A growing number of people are skipping that first step and heading straight to a place like Halifax, because they know enough about the local labour market, they know enough about the amenities, that they don’t need to do this two-step migration,” said Michael Haan, associate professor of sociology at Western University and director of the university’s Statistics Canada Research Data Centre.

The Atlantic provinces have been the most aggressive in structuring programs to attract and retain young, skilled immigrants through an employer-driven program – separate from each province’s provincial nominee program – that creates an easier and faster pathway to permanent residency for skilled workers and international students.

“For us in the Atlantic region, it’s about retaining people here,” said Jennifer Watts, chief executive officer of the Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia. The retention rate of immigrants is 71 per cent in the province, and there’s an urgency to help people establish careers, secure housing and establish social connections quickly so they don’t decamp for other provinces.

“It’s about having the sense of belonging: This is my home; I see opportunities for myself and my family members; I feel welcomed; I see how I can progress in my career here,” she said. “As lovely as Toronto and other places are, we want to people to stay here.”

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