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Shop owner, Talal Elseyadi, reflects on some of the struggles of establishing a business as a former Syrian refugee living in St John's, Newfoundland on Oct. 8, 2020.KARA O`KEEFE/The Globe and Mail

With polling station workers quitting in fear and voters growing increasingly anxious over a surge in COVID-19 cases, Newfoundland and Labrador has taken the unprecedented step to postpone Saturday’s election in nearly half the province’s ridings.

The province made the decision as public-health officials confirmed 100 new cases of the coronavirus on Thursday, the biggest single-day spike yet. The provincial election will now be delayed in 18 of Newfoundland’s 40 ridings, all in the most populous region around St. John’s where the outbreak has been concentrated.

Voting will proceed as scheduled in other parts of the province, but the results will not be released until all voting in the province has finished at an undetermined later date, Elections NL said. Mail-in voting options have also been extended.

“Many election workers have resigned out of fear of interacting with the public on election day,” the province’s voting authority said in a statement. “We cannot hold traditional polls without the support of these people.”

Newfoundland has a spending problem, but no one in its election race wants to address it

The changes were made after chief electoral officer Bruce Chaulk sent a letter Thursday to party leaders and independent candidates saying the growing community spread of COVID-19 constituted “a serious occupational health and safety issue” for poll workers.

“The current significant outbreak has had a profound impact on our ability to conduct a fair election, and immediate action is required to be taken,” he wrote.

Progressive Conservative Leader Ches Crosbie said Mr. Chaulk’s decision “creates two classes of voters, and is therefore wholly unfair.” Mr. Crosbie had called for the election to be delayed, but said it should be postponed across the province.

The province’s top medical doctor said the surge in numbers suggests “COVID-19 has been circulating in our province for some time.” Many of those affected are students, Chief Medical Officer of Health Janice Fitzgerald said, and she urged thousands with connections to team sports and other gatherings of young people to self-isolate for 14 days.

Prior to this outbreak, while Newfoundland had some of the lowest infection rates in the country, the pandemic was an afterthought in the campaign. The parties were instead focused on the crippling fiscal and demographic challenges facing their province.

The province lost nearly 2,500 residents in the 12 months between November, 2019, and November, 2020, according to Statistics Canada. It’s the only province in the country that’s getting smaller, with nearly 60,000 fewer residents than it had in 1992, the year the cod moratorium was introduced and devastated the province’s economy.

Immigration, in particular, is getting new political attention, as Newfoundlanders face the prospect of a steadily shrinking and aging population. Getting newcomers to stay is an old problem – the province has the worst refugee retention rate in the country, at around 36 per cent, according to a 2018 study from Memorial University in St. John’s.

It attracted 1,850 permanent residents in 2019 – but its total population lost more than that to outmigration. To turn that around, the parties are promising a range of solutions, from funding for fertility programs to graduate student enticements to aggressive new immigration targets.

Helping newcomers put down roots is often on the mind of Talal Elseyadi, who runs a crowded international food shop in St. John’s. He said he frequently gets calls from other former Syrian refugees asking him why he’s still in Newfoundland and Labrador.

“I have friends in Toronto, Mississauga, they call me and say, ‘Why do you stay?’ ” said the father of four. “But this is home.”

Mr. Elseyadi, who came to St. John’s with 45 Syrian families in 2016, has watched many friends pick up and leave the city in recent months – at least a dozen families this past summer alone, he said. Most have gone to Ontario or Alberta.

Mr. Elseyadi started his own business selling imported specialty foods last year after becoming frustrated at not being able to find work in his trade. A trained mechanic in Syria, he said the province needs to make it easier for foreign credentials to be recognized and accepted by local employers. He wanted to stay because St. John’s is safe, the people are friendly and it’s a good place to raise a family, he said.

But many refugees, struggling with language barriers and unable to find good work, aren’t so patient.

“I see opportunities here. But no one else sees it,” said Hasan Al Falah, a 22-year-old former Syrian refugee, who helps out around the shop. “It’s hard for them to find a job. It’s hard for them to learn English. They have no chance.”

Simply increasing immigration numbers alone isn’t a solution to Newfoundland’s problems, argues economist Don Drummond, who co-authored a new C.D. Howe Institute study on the province’s fiscal challenges. If it’s not targeted, where highly skilled people are matched with vacancies in the job market, you can end up with an influx of newcomers who are more costly to the province, he said.

“St. John’s doesn’t need another taxi driver who’s trained as an accountant,” he said. “Many immigrants, at least initially, struggle economically when they come to Canada. ... To do it right, you have to be strategic about it, and way more so than everybody else. It’s a competitive field, and in Canada we’re way behind a lot of other countries when it comes to doing that.”

He’s skeptical the political parties pledging to increase immigration in Newfoundland have the expertise to find the most skilled immigrants available and know how to keep them in the province. And without economic opportunities, many will leave anyway, he said.

Newfoundland and Labrador’s government said annual immigration totals have increased by 40 per cent since 2017. But the overall numbers are still small, and outweighed by the outmigration of people leaving the province.

Regardless of how they feel about immigration, many voters will have to wait until there’s more clarity on when they can cast their ballots. The province’s Elections Act does not include provisions for suspending the vote, even in an outbreak.

The suspended vote is uncharted legal territory for the province, and the ultimate authority rests with the province’s lieutenant-governor, who has final say over elections.

The Progressive Conservatives’ Mr. Crosbie argued the chaotic situation casts doubt over the entire election.

“Simply put, some voters will have more time than others and more access to information to make their electoral decision,” he said. “That is wrong and calls into question the integrity of the electoral process.”

With a report from The Canadian Press

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