A decade ago, Manitoba was a place that grew only slowly and fretted about the day it might start to shrink. But when the results of the 2011 census are released this week, some of the most surprising population gains could be in a place that for years barely grew at all.
Over the past ten years, Manitoba has more than tripled its share of national immigration and in the process become a model for immigration reform. With roughly 3 per cent of Canada's population, Manitoba now attracts nearly 6 per cent of its immigrants, more than 15,000 in 2010.
The overwhelming majority arrived under the provincial nominee program, which Manitoba was the first province to adopt in 1998. That decision proved to be transformative. Manitoba is not a resource-boom economy like its oil and potash-rich Prairie cousins. It grows only modestly even in the best of times. So it's no small accomplishment that Manitoba has become a destination for immigrants.
Unusually, areas outside the city of Winnipeg began welcoming large numbers of newcomers in the early part of the decade. Brandon, a city of 40,000 is home to a major meat-packing plant that has always had trouble finding and keeping workers. Today, the plant has spawned a multicultural boom. There are now 57 language groups in Brandon, with workers from El Salvador, China, Colombia and elsewhere having led the city's transformation.
The fastest growing region in the country in 2010 was the agricultural and manufacturing belt south of Winnipeg, populated by the church-going communities of Winkler, Morden and Altona. The area has welcomed thousands of newcomers from Germany and Mexico, many of them with families of seven or more. They've been helped in their adjustment by locals whose German-speaking families came to Canada last century. Since that initial wave the region has seen growing immigration from Kazakhstan and other former Soviet republics. It's now targeting countries suffering through the European financial crisis, in particular Ireland and Belgium. The search criteria: family oriented, looking for a small community, farmers, tradespeople and entrepreneurs welcome.
Manitoba's Citizenship and Immigration Minister Christine Melnick said the province targets the kind of immigrants who are likely to settle in the province. Often that means people with family ties to Manitoba or who will find a national or ethnic community to tap into. So far, the retention rate among nominee immigrants is nearly 83 per cent. With a median age of 28, they also tend to be younger than those in other immigration streams. A recent federal review found that Manitoba's provincial nominees have very high rates of employment, but earn substantially less on average ($33,000 three years after arrival) than those in Alberta and British Columbia.
"We bring in people we believe will be comfortable in Manitoba. We don't necessarily target groups for specific employment opportunities," Ms. Melnick said.
Manitoba would like to see the cap on its nominee applicants raised. Federal Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney intends to reform Canada's immigration system this year, but it's not clear whether he will expand the nominee program. It may also be difficult for Manitoba, which already eats up nearly a third of the nominee allocation, to argue for more permits. In the meantime, Manitoba is pouring its resources into settling new arrivals. Finding affordable housing has recently been an issue.
Marietta Franco and her family arrived in Winnipeg three years ago from the Philippines. Ms. Franco, 43, said she was miserable for the first six months and cried regularly. It was the middle of winter and she talked openly about returning home. But other members of Winnipeg's large Filipino community, including two brothers who sponsored her under the nominee program, persuaded her to persevere.
"Now I tell my friends [in the Philippines]it's only the weather that's a problem. Otherwise, this is the perfect place to live. I've found so many friends here," she said. "For my children, there's lots of opportunities."
She and her husband recently bought their own home. He works in a plant that makes parts for buses and she works with other recent immigrants at The Immigrant Centre, a settlement agency.
Linda Lalande, executive director at the Immigrant Centre, said demand for her agency's services has skyrocketed in recent years, as immigrants to Winnipeg nearly doubled.
The Immigrant Centre insists that every newcomer meet with a settlement worker for an assessment. They provide help with language courses, getting government ID, enrolling their kids in school and so on. That relationship between the settlement worker and the immigrant continues for months as the immigrant gets established, providing a one-stop-shop for integration. The centre also offers help with employment training. Of those who went through their employment program in December, 85 per cent are already working more than 30 hours a week.
"We have this saying, the better the start, the better the future," Ms. Lalande said.