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Cherry Xie, a recent immigrant to Prince Edward Island, calls life in the province ‘unbelievable.’

Nina Linton

At international immigration fairs, where provinces line up to pitch themselves to skilled workers hunting for a new home, Prince Edward Island's current promotional video shows not a single golf course or sandy beach or Anne of Green Gables landmark.

In a risky move for one of Canada's most picturesque places, there's not one picture in eight minutes. Instead, words like "time" and "balance" flash across the screen, promising a land without rush hours, where the streets are safe and parents have more time with their kids.

An aggressive marketing strategy - focused on selling a lifestyle over poster-perfect vistas - along with investment and settlement help for newcomers may be paying off for PEI: Recent numbers from Statistics Canada show the province reporting one of its largest population spikes in more than 20 years, mostly because of immigrants choosing island life for a fresh start. Although statistics bounce up and down, in the second quarter of 2009, the population growth of PEI was second among provinces only to Alberta and well ahead of the rest of the Maritimes, continuing a trend that started in January.

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It was the slower, safer lifestyle that won over Cherry (Cuiling) Xie, a 47-year-old clothing-factory owner from Shenzhen, China, who arrived in Canada in May, along with her husband and 17-year-old son. She now lives in her "dream house" in Stratford, a small town next door to Charlottetown, with a backyard that slopes to the river. Her son has settled into school - soaring to the top of his class in math - and she is studying English at Holland College, courtesy of the province. Her list of the island's pros: cheap housing, lobster dinners and no traffic jams.



"In Shenzhen, it would always take an hour to travel by car somewhere 10 minutes away," she says.

Her classmate, Min Jiant, an engineer from Beijing who also came with her 17-year-old son (her husband is still working in China), offers the same sentiment. "We wanted to change our lifestyle. We wanted to find a place that was peaceful."

More than a year after arriving, she says PEI, where her son no longer crams for school until midnight and a friendly neighbour shovels her driveway in the winter, has lived up to its marketing.

Only 140,000 people live on the island, so the recent jump in population amounts to roughly 740 people - an overall growth in population from April to June of .53 per cent. But for a province watching its young people leave in droves for Alberta and the country's major cities, that's the biggest second-quarter increase since 1978.

PEI has also been increasing its numbers under the provincial nomination program in which skilled immigrants - those with work experience in demand in Canada and their own money to make a move - request their location of choice. Last year, about 500 immigrant families arrived in the province, mostly from Asian countries such as China and South Korea.

(The province has also been similarly ambitious in trying to woo back former islanders. The government printed up heart-tugging postcards that can be mailed out by family members to children and siblings who have left home. "It's about time you come back home to PEI," the postcard beseeches, leaving wistful mothers a place to sign, "Love, Mom.")

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Overseas, the province has concentrated on word of mouth among immigrants. It has been able to build up a community base, particularly of Chinese and Korean residents, to help newcomers get settled. New foreign students are individually assessed to make sure they are in the right program and the best school for their needs. A "cultural awareness" campaign was held in schools and communities to reduce any "come from away" backlash among long-term islanders.

But provincial officials are realistic about the province's challenges - long walks on the beach and quick cross-town errands won't offset a past-due mortgage payment. Says Allan Campbell, the Minister of Innovation and Advanced Learning, whose portfolio includes immigration: "PEI is a very attractive option for people. But at the end of the day we all have to eat and pay our bills."

And that means competing with Montreal and Vancouver - not an easy feat for a province with a capital city of 35,000 people. For Jim Ferguson, executive director with the recently created Population Secretariat, whose mandate is boosting PEI's population by 1.5 per cent a year, that means ensuring that newcomers remain long-term islanders. "Our job is to make sure they don't get off the plane [in Toronto]"

For as much as Ms. Xie and Ms. Jiant gush about the province, they are also realistic. When their English gets stronger, they want good jobs - Ms. Xie already explored opening a clothing store in Charlottetown and found the market too small. Soon, their sons will be off to university - they might want to follow them. But for now, Ms. Jiant brightly concludes: "So far, so good."

Erin Anderssen is a Globe and Mail feature writer.

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