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Canada Drawn by jobs, immigration boom hits Saskatchewan

Askandar Agha looks out from his apartment's balcony on Sunday, February 5, 2012 in Saskatoon. Agha was a doctor in Iraq and is studying so that he can practice in Canada.

Liam Richards/THE CANADIAN PRESS/Liam Richards/THE CANADIAN PRESS

From all over the world, they come to Saskatchewan with little in common except their knowledge of a couple of fundamental Canadian truths.

These days – certainly if the first tranche of data from the 2011 census, released Wednesday, is any indication – Saskatchewan is the place to be.

That, and it can get pretty fierce in the winter.

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"It was very, very cold the year we arrived," recalled Shazia Rehman, who moved from England to Canada in 2006 when her husband, a doctor, got a job in Regina.

"We arrived in February and we literally stood at the airport and I thought, 'My life is over. I'm going to be buried under the snow. No one is ever going to find my body,'" Sinead Tierney moved arrived from Ireland in September 2010. Her husband, a journeyman carpenter, was looking for work after the construction industry went under in Ireland and Saskatchewan held promise – even though she'd never heard of it.

"We had huge expectations as regards to your winters," Ms. Tierney laughed. "We had been warned."

Iraqi-born Askandar Agha, 29, moved to Saskatoon in October 2011 because his wife's family lived in the city. He, too, braced himself for the weather. "Before I moved here, I was watching it on the Internet," he recalled. "I knew…the weather was going to be very cold."

The ferocious Canadian winter hasn't lived up to its billing of late. The red-hot Saskatchewan economy, on the other hand, most certainly has, if the 2011 census is any indication: population growth in the province hit 6.7 per cent over the last five years, compared with a negative growth rate of 1.1 per cent between 2001 and 2006.

Saskatchewan welcomed more than 28,000 immigrants between 2006 and 2011, about three times the number of the previous five years, as well as some 12,000 newcomers from other provinces. Between 2001 and 2006, the province suffered a net loss of 35,000 people.

In 2008, the province was aiming for 2,800 nominations under the Saskatchewan Immigrant Nominee Program, 85 per cent more than the 2007 target of 1,500. The target has gone up every year since the program was established in 2001.

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Immigration Minister Rob Norris said he anticipates some 4,000 people will apply under the program this year. With family members, that could mean as many as 12,500 people arriving in Saskatchewan.

Jobs are the big draw. Demand for skilled labour in Western Canada's booming oil and gas sector continues to grow, and Saskatchewan is flush with both, as well as potash and uranium.

Indeed, the Saskatchewan economy remains a juggernaut even in the face of worldwide economic turmoil.

Many of the province's newcomers are from China, India and Pakistan, Mr. Norris said. There are also a lot from the Philippines, where Saskatchewan has been aggressively recruiting nurses. Nearly 400 nurses from the Philippines have registered in Saskatchewan since 2008.

"Saskatchewan is becoming increasingly diverse, dynamic and cosmopolitan," Mr. Norris said.

"And that stretches not simply across Regina and Saskatoon, but it's felt right across the province. Communities like Swift Current and Yorkton, Prince Albert and Lloydminster, to name but a few, that really are increasingly cosmopolitan centres and welcoming to our new neighbours."

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There are still challenges for newcomers. Officials at welcome centres in Regina and Saskatoon say the biggest barriers are language and housing.

For Ms. Rehman, it's been hard to find the billowy salwar kameez, a staple of traditional Muslim garb. Most of her clothing comes from England, Pakistan or Toronto.

Family and friends still wonder what possessed her to move to Saskatchewan.

"To be really honest, I can't imagine living anywhere else now because this is home and has everything that I want," she said. "It has great friends who have become closer to me than maybe blood."

Mr. Agha, who was a doctor in Iraq, said his biggest challenge will be getting his medical licence. He is studying and hopes to eventually practise in Saskatchewan.

And though he misses his family back home, Mr. Agha calls Saskatoon "beautiful."

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"It's a very nice country and the people are very friendly," he said. "Whenever you go out, they are very open. It's not like my country because in my country if you go [out] you are afraid of attacking, bombarding, stuff like this. Here, no."

Ms. Tierney's husband had a job lined up before they moved, and she landed work once they got here. But one of her biggest fears was how her daughter, who was nine at the time, would adjust.

"We had the decision made coming over here that if she didn't settle, we might not stay, because if your child isn't happy then your life is going to be miserable as well," she laughed.

"I'm must say that we're very, very happy here now. We're absolutely thrilled that we made the decision to come here."

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