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Canada's smallest province has a big economic problem: not enough workers. PEI's answer is to import them – by opening the gates wide to immigration. So far, it's working. Is there a lesson for the rest of the country? David Parkinson reports

Market goers wait in line for Chinese food at Abby’s Catering stall at the Charlottetown Farmers’ Market.

On a crisp, late-autumn morning, locals shuffle through the Charlottetown Farmers' Market, scooping up farm produce from the fertile countryside just a few minutes up the road, cuts of meat from local ranchers, fresh Prince Edward Island oysters (shucked while you wait) and an array of handmade crafts and preserves. The scene is familiar to anyone who's visited the market during its 34-year history.

But as you head deeper in, the lilt of rural PEI accents is interspersed with less familiar sounds: Mandarin, Hindi, Arabic. A long line of market-goers waits at a stall serving foods from Africa. Young students carry on an animated conversation in Spanish in front of a Mexican food vendor. Other stalls serve Chinese, Indian and Middle Eastern fare.

"It's a different atmosphere altogether from what it was back 20 years ago," said Ralph Younker of Younker's Farm Fresh Produce. Mr. Younker has had a fruit-and-vegetable stall at the market for the past 28 years, and he has watched as a new wave of immigrants has transformed the popular Charlottetown attraction. "In the last two or three years, we've really noticed the influx."

About 2,500 new immigrants landed in PEI in 2017; roughly 90 per cent of which have settled, for now, in Charlottetown. About the same number arrived in 2016. The province has also taken in about 800 non-permanent foreign residents in the past year .

While those numbers might not sound like a lot to people living in Canada's big, immigrant-intensive hubs, such as Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, they're a very big deal in a place the size of Charlottetown (population 36,000). The annual immigrant influx is equivalent to roughly 6 per cent of the city's population – which, on a per capita basis, dwarfs the intake of municipalities elsewhere in the country.

This is all very new for a part of Canada that, historically, has been among the least ethnically diverse regions in the country. It reflects a major push by PEI's provincial government to make its slow-growth, aging population both larger and younger – and in doing so, hopefully reverse the demographic collision course on which the province's economy is otherwise headed.

As of the 2016 national census, nearly 20 per cent of PEI's population was 65 and over, up from 15 per cent in the 2006 census. Its average age, 43, had increased by three years in the span of a decade. Crucially for the economy, its labour force (people who are either employed or seeking work) had actually begun shrinking. The prime-age labour force – those between the ages of 25 and 54, considered the most productive segment of the population – declined by 5.8 per cent between 2012 and 2016.

An aging population and slow-growth work force is hardly unique to PEI; Canada's overall population, and those of most of the world's advanced economies, are trending in the same direction – a symptom of the inevitable aging of the huge baby-boomer population. Statistics Canada has projected that, over the next 20 years, the number of working-age Canadians (15 to 64) will grow just 7 per cent, or only about one-third of the pace seen over the past 20 years; the country's 65-plus population is expected to balloon by 64 per cent in the next two decades. Slow labour growth threatens to stifle the economy's capacity to expand. It's the key reason Ottawa has substantially increased the country's annual immigration targets to import more skilled labour in the coming years – and has changed its rules to help steer more immigrants to regions with the most pressing need.

PEI, along with the rest of Atlantic Canada, is at the top of the list; the demographic crunch has arrived earlier here than in the rest of the country. Slowing natural population growth, a steady exodus of the region's youth and historically low immigration rates have all taken their toll. With another 15 per cent of PEI's population within 10 years of the traditional age of retirement, 65, the prospect of a deepening economic malaise looms on the horizon.

Facing this reality, the government of PEI Premier Wade MacLauchlan has embraced immigration as the cornerstone of its economic revitalization strategy. Taking advantage of the evolution in Ottawa's immigration rules giving the provinces more power to recruit their own immigrants, PEI has roughly doubled its annual immigration intake – heavily weighted toward skilled workers and entrepreneurs and their families who, if all goes as planned, will form a big part of a new generation of PEI prosperity.

The early economic returns have been encouraging. But it's too soon to tell whether PEI can keep enough newcomers here to turn the current immigration boom into the sustainable longer-term prosperity the province seeks.

"My family loves this beautiful island, especially the summer. But it's a small city," said 38-year-old Henry Yin, who arrived in Charlottetown from Beijing in 2014 with his wife and two young sons. "There's not a lot of business in PEI." He has already abandoned the software and internet business he originally came here to set up, and now works as a real estate agent. "Maybe we'll move to a bigger city in five or six years. Maybe Halifax or Moncton."

PEI will serve as an immigration laboratory for the rest of the country, as many regional economies look to address their own looming demographic crunch. Because of the province's small economy and population, even steering what amounts to only a few more of Canada's immigrants to the province (it still takes in less than 1 per cent of Canada's annual total) is having a rapid and observable impact, both economically and socially. As Charlottetown's and PEI's high-speed immigration makeover progresses, policy makers in many other small cities and rural regions will want to take notes.

Workers lift a case of lobster while grading shellfish at Royal Star Foods in Tignish, PEI.

'Dead in the water'

If you want to understand how an aging population and shrinking work force have the capacity to choke off an otherwise healthy economy, just ask Francis Morrissey.

Mr. Morrissey is the manager of Royal Star Foods Ltd., a lobster processing co-operative in the village of Tignish on the northwestern tip of Prince Edward Island. The business is thriving; it can barely keep up with growing demand from export markets.

What he lacks, increasingly, is a work force to staff his high-tech plant. The population in the community shrank nearly 8 per cent in the past five years; its working-age population declined more than 16 per cent. The median age in Tignish is 53.2 years, up from 48.6 just five years ago.

"Fifteen years ago, it wasn't a problem, we had more workers than we needed. Today, we're short, all the time," the big, rugged fisherman said. "The older ones are retired, and the younger ones aren't coming into the industry."

The solution, increasingly, has been to bring in workers from other countries. Royal Star employs about 70 foreign workers, mostly from the Philippines, out of a total staff of about 400 at the peak of the lobster season. Without workers from overseas, Mr. Morrissey said, he wouldn't have the staff necessary to keep the plant running – and to keep all those people employed.

"Without a work force, we're dead in the water."

Royal Star's dilemma is symptomatic of the demographic crunch the entire PEI economy has been facing. Until recently, the province's population growth had stalled; its working-age population was actually shrinking. Shortages of skilled labour stifled businesses' ability to expand, and thus the economy's capacity to grow. Little business growth translated into little hiring, and little opportunity for the province's youth – who have routinely moved to greener employment pastures. In agriculture, the fishery, tourism – the traditional backbone of the province's economy – workers and business owners have retired in increasing numbers, with no one to take their place.

While temporary foreign workers have plugged some holes in the province's threadbare labour fabric, a longer-term solution was needed. If left unchecked, the province faced a future in which its key industries looked destined to decline, along with its tax base and, by extension, its government's capacity to provide services.

"This is staring all of us in the face," Mr. MacLauchlan said as we chat in his spacious but understated office – a room that feels more like a professor's study than the seat of provincial power – fitting for a former law professor who spent more than a decade as president of the University of Prince Edward Island. It was in his time at UPEI, seeing the fading school-enrolment rates in the province, that he developed an interest in the province's demographic fate that has become a defining crusade of his political career.

"It was quite obvious, nearly two decades ago, that we were already in the process of a demographic trend that wouldn't turn out very well."

A pedestrian walks past historical buildings on Great George Street in Charlottetown, PEI.

Mr. MacLauchlan made population growth the core of the province's economic strategy after becoming Premier in 2015. He set a population target of 150,000 for the province by the end of 2017 (which it surpassed) and 160,000 by 2022. The government's economic plan, branded "The Mighty Island," focuses on recruiting newcomers to the province, particularly skilled workers and entrepreneurs; getting more of those newcomers to stay in the province long term (what people in the immigration biz call "retention"); and convincing former Islanders to come home. The plan also includes encouraging more newcomers to move beyond Charlottetown and settle in rural communities, such as Tignish, where a new generation of skilled workers and business owners is acutely needed.

The first step has been an increase in immigration numbers – getting more people into PEI in the first place.

"What we need to do is open the doors," the Premier said.

Mr. MacLauchlan's ambitions have been aided by shifts in federal immigration policy in recent years which give individual provinces, particularly in the Atlantic region, increased capacity to recruit their own skilled workers and entrepreneurs. Between Ottawa's recent increases of provincial allotments under the nearly two-decade-old Provincial Nominee Program (PNP), and a new program launched this year called the Atlantic Immigration Pilot Program, PEI was afforded nearly 1,000 annual slots for skilled immigrants, plus their immediate families, in 2017 – compared with just 400 three years ago. (Each of those slots for a so-called "principal" immigrant translates to, on average, about 2.4 immigrants, once family members are included.)

It also helps that the bar that PEI has set for PNP entrepreneurs – the portion of the program that brings in immigrants who pledge to start a business – is among the lowest in the country. Those approved receive immediate permanent-resident status; in exchange, they are required to put $200,000 in escrow, which they get back if they live in PEI and operate a business there with at least $75,000 of operating expenses for one year. Most other provinces either have larger financial requirements, or only grant temporary work permits until the minimum-residency and business-operation period is completed. The relatively easy standards have drawn immigrant entrepreneurs to PEI's door.

The Premier's efforts have turned his province into an instant immigration hotbed. Charlottetown, the epicentre of this boom, has seen its immigrant population double in just five years; new Canadians made up 12.4 per cent of the city's population as of the 2016 census, nearly triple the share of a decade ago.

By many key measures, the strategy has so far been a success. Over the past year, Prince Edward Island had the fastest-growing population among Canadian provinces – growth driven almost entirely by immigration. More importantly, the median age in PEI declined slightly in the past year – the first time that has happened in 50 years.

That growth is fuelling a hot economy. PEI's real gross domestic product expanded by 2.3 per cent in 2016 – its fastest growth in a decade, and a full percentage-point higher than Canada's national growth pace. The economy is believed to have grown at about the same pace again last year. In the past year, PEI led all provinces in employment and wage growth, on a percentage basis.

The quick success has won over most Islanders. Mr. MacLauchlan points to a recent survey from Corporate Research Associates, an Atlantic Canada-based independent research firm, showing that two-thirds of Islanders believe the province "is headed in the right strategic direction."

"I think it's a good sign that people see the growth," he said. "If we're going to catch up, we have to do better than the average."

Yet, Charlottetown is feeling the strain of so much growth, so fast. Housing is scarce and prices have soared. Immigrant-settlement services are overworked. The schools are grappling with an influx of immigrant children who are struggling with a new language and culture. Health care and transit are scrambling to keep up with demand that is rising almost by the day.

"Immigration has arrived faster than people were prepared for," said Craig Mackie, executive director of the PEI Association for Newcomers to Canada, the non-profit agency that provides a wide range of settlement services for new arrivals. "It's not just the government, it's not just the private sector and it's not just the non-profit sector – we're all struggling to deal with this."

Pedestrians walk across Queen Street in downtown Charlottetown, PEI.

A new face of Charlottetown

Walking up from the waterfront along historic Queen Street in the heart of old Charlottetown, the first thing that strikes you is the old-world flatness of the skyline. There are only a handful of buildings that stretch above the traditional three- and four-storey structures that have defined the city's architecture for generations. (There isn't a building in town taller than 10 storeys.)

As the "Birthplace of Confederation" – the city where, more than 150 years ago, the leaders of the British colonies in what is now Canada first formally discussed banding together to form a new country – Charlottetown's streetscapes have long been protected as a physical, visual testament to its unique place in Canadian history. There are about 300 officially designated historical buildings in downtown Charlottetown alone, saved in perpetuity from the wrecking ball and from modern urban development. Strict building codes have otherwise kept development close to the ground. To hear Mayor Clifford Lee talk about it, his job is part administrator of a small but growing city, part curator of a living national historical monument.

"I think Charlottetown will always be a heritage city," Mr. Lee said in his corner office in the 19th-century City Hall, overlooking Queen Street. "I think the city of Charlottetown has an obligation to Canadians to preserve the city that portrays the Birthplace of Confederation."

Yet, even amid a downtown very deliberately lost in time, a new face of Charlottetown is emerging from its storefronts. Whereas a decade or so ago this popular tourist area would have been dominated by seafood restaurants and pubs, there is now a world of choices: Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Korean, Vietnamese, Afghani. And it's not just eateries dotting the downtown streets; newcomers are making a go of bookstores and boutiques, grocery stores and gift shops.

The entrepreneurial portion of the PNP remains the most controversial part of the province's immigration push. Memories of past scandals have left a lingering suspicion that wealthy immigrants are simply using PEI's entrepreneur scheme to buy their way into Canada. But there's little question it is breathing fresh life into Charlottetown's retail community.

Just around the corner from City Hall is a little jewellery shop owned by Pam and Joe Arora. The PNP brought the couple, in their early 50s, to Charlottetown from New Delhi in mid-2015. After more than a decade of experience owning a hand-crafted jewellery store in India, they opened their business, Pam & Joe Handcrafted, about a year later.

"We've been doing well," Pam said. "We've been getting quite a lot of help from the government; we took advantage of it."

Pam Arora and her husband Joe have a jewellery store in Charlottetown, PEI.

The Aroras are among the new wave of immigrant entrepreneurs who have been nurtured by PEI Connectors, a government-funded program run through the Greater Charlottetown Area Chamber of Commerce. The program connects new immigrants looking to own a business with Islanders seeking buyers for existing businesses, as well as providing a link for newcomers with members of the business community who can provide advice, mentorship and education on the ins and outs of starting a business in PEI. The idea is to smooth the way for newcomers to succeed and thrive in their new business environment – with the end goal to improve the chances of retaining new immigrants in the province. It's the kind of support that was sorely lacking in the failed immigrant-investor program of a decade ago.

"It takes a while to build relationships, to build the trust and understanding," said Penny Walsh McGuire, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce. "Our ability to facilitate those connections is very important.… Providing the support that we do is important to help increase the chances of success."

The Aroras are one of PEI Connectors' success stories. While their business isn't yet profitable, they sound committed to staying and making it work – encouraged by the close connections they have been able to quickly make in the close-knit Charlottetown business community.

"The acceptance is amazing," Pam said. "It's a small place, everyone knows everyone. There's no mad rush. The crime is very low here. People are more connected, they have time for each other, they have patience.

"All that is helping us fall in love with this place more and more."

Nagging worries

Nevertheless, the Aroras are in the minority among PNP entrepreneurs. Recent statistics from the government show nearly two-thirds of PNP entrepreneurs have either failed within their first year or never got off the ground to begin with. That means the province has pocketed $18-million from escrow defaults – money PNP entrepreneurs forfeited because they didn't fulfill their promise to own and run a business on the Island for the required one year.

Critics also worry that the entrepreneur program isn't focused enough on recruiting businesses to the province in emerging high-skill sectors that will help launch the province into new growth industries. Nearly 30 per cent of the approved startups have been in small retail.

The nagging worries reflect back on the embarrassing failure of the provincial strategies of a decade ago aimed at bringing in wealthy foreigners to inject investment in local business – a wound still fresh for many Islanders.

The previous program, under which immigrants invested $200,000 a piece in PEI businesses in exchange for permanent-resident status in Canada, brought more than $400-million into the province, but much of the money never made it past middlemen who worked with both prospective immigrants and companies looking to capitalize on the program. Businesses that should have never qualified for the program received immigrant funds, in some cases using the "investments" to pay off creditors and back taxes. Many immigrant investors never even saw the companies that took their money, let alone actively participated in the business – a requirement of the federally sanctioned program. There were allegations provincial officials doled out funds to businesses of friends and family, and even that some accepted bribes. Ottawa shut down the program in 2008, citing rules breaches. Federal authorities, including the RCMP, launched formal investigations, though no charges were ever laid.

Perhaps worst of all, most of those immigrants merely used PEI as a stepping stone, moving on to other provinces. Tax-filing statistics suggest that just one-third of the immigrants who landed in PEI in 2007 were still living there three years later.

That policy calamity has left some Islanders skeptical about the current immigrant push – and suspicious of whom in the province is really benefiting .

Among the most vocal of skeptics is Vision PEI, a grassroots political group concerned with safeguarding "the future well-being of the province," as it states on its Facebook page. The group's leader is David Weale, a local author and former UPEI professor – who frequently takes to social media to, among other things, rail against the threats to the province's rich farmlands from large-scale industrial farming and express suspicions about a Buddhist monastery and school that is expanding its footprint in rural PEI.

I had a coffee with Mr. Weale and a couple of his Vision PEI colleagues – Kevin Arsenault and Dale Small – in the elegant dining room of the Rodd Charlottetown, the city's grande dame of hotels (the Queen has slept here). The old-Charlottetown atmosphere seems apt for a discussion about safeguarding Prince Edward Island's past in the face of a government rushing headlong into its future.

"The immigration policy at the present time has nothing to do with the long-term benefits to the Island, or the kind of society we want to build. It just has to do with opportunism," Mr. Weale argued. "There are all kinds of sectors of the population that are temporarily happy – because they're selling properties, they're selling cars, they're lawyers and accountants. But if you ask the question, 'Where's all this heading?' Nobody's even talking about that."

"The strategy is the government needs revenue to help manage their fiscal deficit. They know the people they are bringing in only really want permanent-resident status, and they're going to go to Toronto or Vancouver, the vast majority of them – which they've been doing for nearly two decades," said Mr. Arsenault, who is all too familiar with PEI's spotty immigration past – he ran the PEI Association for Newcomers to Canada from 1999 to 2009. "The people coming here, the majority of them, aren't even starting businesses."

There are plenty of new shops throughout the city that suggest otherwise; the rules under the current plan require newcomers to be personally involved in running an active business. Nevertheless, given the failure rate, it's unclear how many of the PNP businesses ever had a realistic chance of succeeding. PEI's system of granting permanent residency immediately means that anyone who is accepted as a PNP entrepreneur has no real obligation to actually make a serious go of their business – so long as they're willing to forgo their escrow funds, or swallow the costs of running the business for a year. For some wealthy immigrants, that may be a reasonable price to pay to gain permanent entry into Canada.

On a rainy afternoon, I met 39-year-old Jessica Wang at her new business, Family & Bookland, which she started a few months ago. Officially, it's a Chinese bookstore – but one with remarkably few books for sale. She calls it a "learning centre," where she hosts seminars for Chinese newcomers to learn about the local community and culture. Sometimes she charges money for these seminars, either to the attendees or the presenters; sometimes they are free.

Ms. Wang is quite candid: She doesn't plan to stay – in the business, or in Charlottetown. Once she fulfills her obligations to get her escrow money back, she and her 8-year-old son intend to look elsewhere.

"I think, eventually, I will move out of PEI. The job opportunities here are not that good. When I finish this business … I think, probably, I will move out," she said.

"It's a turnstile. That's what PEI is, it's just a turnstile," Mr. Weale said.

Back in the Premier's office, Mr. MacLauchlan shakes his head at the notion that immigration to PEI must be meted out with great care, to protect the Island against immigrants who may be using the province as a convenient way to get into Canada, without being fully committed to the economic best interests of the Islanders who were here before them.

"Our [past] approach to immigration is like librarians who don't want to let the books out. I think we have to recognize that immigration is a good thing, and when people come, they will find what's best for them."

And, anyway, recent government data suggest that many PNP immigrants are finding PEI to their liking. The figures show that even though more PNP businesses appear to be failing than succeeding, very few newcomers are defaulting on the portion of their escrow deposits covering their commitment to live in the province for at least 12 months. And PEI's outward migration has slowed even as its immigrant intake has swelled. Though it's not definitive evidence, both of those figures suggest that more immigrants are staying put.

'Beijing Street'

Perhaps the biggest draw to keeping immigrants in any community is the presence of more immigrants – building a "critical mass," as people involved in the immigration industry here call it. As the province's immigration numbers rise, and at least some percentage of them stay, the expectation is their numbers will grow sufficiently that various ethnic communities will become self-sustaining – substantial enough to provide a built-in community that nurtures newcomers as they integrate into a new country and culture.

"It becomes self-reinforcing," Premier MacLauchlan said. "Communities get to the point where others will want to come and join them."

Elements of such ethnic communities have started to emerge in Charlottetown and its suburbs – for example, among the growing Indian and Arab populations. A modest Syrian community has arisen, as the area has taken in more than 300 refugees from the war-torn country over the past two years. The city's Filipino population has grown substantially in recent years.

But the big ethnic group taking hold in Charlottetown is the Chinese community. More than one-quarter of all immigrants in the city, and nearly half of the immigrants who settled here from 2011-16, came from China, according to last year's census. The city is gaining a reputation among immigration hopefuls in Beijing, where people fed up with the Chinese capital's unwieldy size, crowded streets and air pollution are drawn to the promise of a quieter, healthier environment.

Mr. Yin, the real estate agent, takes me on a tour of Stratford, a suburb across a short bridge from downtown Charlottetown. He turns his SUV up Stonington Boulevard, known to locals and real estate professionals as "Beijing Street."

As we wind past the sprawling two-level and ranch-style homes, with their double garages and seemingly endless lawns, Mr. Yin points to house after house: "Chinese. Chinese. Chinese." He estimates about 70 per cent of the homes on this street have been bought by Chinese immigrants.

In newer subdivisions, such as the waterfront communities in Stratford and West Royalty and Bell Heights in Charlottetown's north end, the city is seeing the beginnings of what demographers call "ethnic enclaves" – pockets where immigrant families have clustered, in some cases even forming the majority of the population, if only for a few blocks. Researchers say the emergence of enclaves – common in the country's big, urban immigrant hubs, but less so outside of them – bode well for a city's ability to attract and retain newcomers, wrapping them in a built-in support network.

As new arrivals from China are drawn to these neighbourhoods, they are fuelling pockets of acute price surges. Mr. Yin said homes around here that sold for about $350,000 two years ago are going for more than $500,000 today. It's not only because of the jump in demand, but also because many newcomers are more than willing to bid up prices in order to get the exact house they want on the exact street where they might have friends and family.

As Mr. Yin notes, an average two-bedroom apartment in Beijing sells for about $2-million; newcomers don't bat an eye at the asking prices for the kind of spacious homes and rambling lots you find on Beijing Street. Charlottetowners even tell stories of new Chinese arrivals (and/or their agents) simply knocking on a door in a desirable neighbourhood and offering to buy a house that wasn't even for sale – naming a price too generous for the owner to refuse.

This phenomenon is part of a broader housing boom gripping Charlottetown, fuelled by the immigration wave. Average prices have jumped 22 per cent since 2015, while sales are up nearly 30 per cent. Housing starts this year are running at nearly twice the pace of previous years, but are still having trouble keeping up with rising demand.

"The market is very hot," Mr. Yin said. "I'm very busy, every day."

Henry Yin has a front-row seat to a ‘hot’ real estate market.

And good luck trying to find an apartment. Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. reported last month that Charlottetown's rental-vacancy rate is a thin 0.9 per cent, half of what it was a year ago. This is one of the tightest rental markets in the country – tighter than Toronto and matching Vancouver.

With immigration straining the city at its seams, Charlottetown is fast discovering that its low-to-the-ground architectural tradition and its large swaths of historically untouchable land in the city core are at odds with its increasingly pressing housing needs. Mayor Lee believes the city has little choice but to loosen its zoning bylaws to allow for high-rise development.

"The reality is there's not a whole lot of vacant land available for new development. When you can't go out any more, you have to go up," he said.

Wooing international students

A key goal of PEI's immigration strategy is not just to inject workers into the labour market, but also to inject youth. Nowhere is PEI's success on this front more evident than around the campus of the University of Prince Edward Island, a few minutes' drive north of downtown. The place is like a United Nations of this city's and province's future.

UPEI has nearly 1,100 international students; they make up roughly one-fifth of the university's student body. The international student population has nearly doubled in the past five years.

I sit with Migel Spencer, an accounting student and president of the UPEI International Students Association, on a quiet afternoon in The Wave, the UPEI student pub. He recalls that when he first came here from Jamaica in January, 2015, his initial shock wasn't so much cultural as climatic.

"I expected the cold, but not that cold. When I came off the plane, my hands froze," he said. "But I'm studying business – one of the key characteristics of an entrepreneur is being able to adapt to a new environment."

The province's hope with recruitment of international students (there are also more than 300 at nearby Holland College) is that the young people being educated here will put down roots in PEI, and contribute their much-needed skills to the labour force for decades to come. Under a long-standing federal program, students are eligible for three-year work permits after graduation; PEI has a special stream of its PNP to grant permanent residency to graduates who get a job offer to remain in the province.

Mr. Spencer isn't sure he's going to stay here for the long term. But he said he and his international-student friends have, indeed, adapted to Charlottetown – and have developed a fond attachment to the place.

"We'll always go where the opportunities lead us," he said. "But PEI will always be our home. It's where we've spent our prime years, it's the place that accepted us in Canada. Wherever we spread our wings and create opportunities, we'll always be Islanders."

A learning curve

Around the corner from Pam & Joe's stands the headquarters of the growing business empire of Xuan Zhou, or Frank Zhou as he's known locally. In the nearly 18 years since he and his wife arrived here from Beijing, he has built his company, Sunrise Group, from a modest language school into a miniconglomerate, rooted in Charlottetown's immigration industry. In addition to the language school, the company is one of seven provincially authorized immigration agents – fee-based consulting firms that skilled-worker and entrepreneur applicants can hire to assist them in navigating the PNP process. It is also involved in Chinese-Canadian business and investment consulting, shipping logistics to and from Asia and early-childhood education. And Mr. Zhou is responsible for exporting two of Prince Edward Island's most famous brands – Anne of Green Gables and COWS ice cream – to China.

He's a one-man bridge between Prince Edward Island's business establishment, its new immigrant face and the economic opportunities they have opened for each other.

"We're ambassadors. We're branding this beautiful province," Mr. Zhou said in his Queen Street office.

Mr. Zhou has had a unique view of PEI's sometimes treacherous immigration journey of the past two decades. He said he is convinced the province is on the right track.

"It's been a learning curve, for everybody – for government, for intermediaries, for us as immigrants, for the business community," he said. "But from the trend, you can see, it's getting better."

"PEI's economy has benefited from this heavily. Different sectors have benefited heavily. Of course, there are some minor strings that need to be fixed. But bigger-picture-wise, it's looking good."

Still, he said, there's plenty of work to be done – to give newcomers the tools and access to information they need to integrate more quickly into the business and social cultures and give them an even better chance to succeed – and stay.

"I'm optimistic. But it's such a long journey. It's not happening in a day. It's years," he said. "People need to work together to sustain this."

Clockwise, from top left: Pam Arora, Henry Yin, Windy Exantus and Jo Jo Zhu.

Meeting some new faces of PEI

Jo Jo Zhu

Along University Avenue a little north of downtown, among the cluster of assorted shops catering to the city's growing Chinese community, sits Yestoday Trading Ltd. – a jumble of specialty Chinese food, clothing and other miscellany tucked at the back of a weathered strip mall. Behind the counter stands the cheerful, soft-spoken owner, 39-year-old Jo Jo Zhu.

Ms. Zhu came to Charlottetown from China with her husband and son (now 5 years old) a year and a half ago under the PNP entrepreneur stream. They started the business about seven months ago.

"Where we lived in China, in Beijing, it's very crowded. And the air pollution, everyone knows it. We cannot change the air pollution, so we wanted to move," she says. "I love it here. It's a very peaceful and beautiful city. Fresh air."

She's self-conscious about her English, but there's no time for classes. They take no days off: Work is 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., seven days a week. Some of the locals drop by the shop to bring her fresh-baked cookies. "It's very sweet. Everyone is so nice."

She says that compared with Beijing, it's "really easy" to set up a business in Canada. But the biggest obstacle to their business is Charlottetown's small population – there's not a big customer base to draw on. They may have to get aggressive with marketing and promotion. "That's maybe the hard part."

The PNP rules require that new-immigrant businesses remain open for at least 12 months to get their full $200,000 deposit back from escrow, but she's not concerned about that. "We will stay here, for many years maybe."

Windy Exantus

When Windy Exantus told his family in 2015 that he was leaving the Bahamas to go to university, they were thinking maybe Florida or Ontario, where he has relatives. They never thought of the University of Prince Edward Island. Frankly, they'd never even heard of the place.

"In my household, when they hear Canada, they only know Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver – that's it," he says.

So what was the big draw to an obscure little university in a part of Canada that his family would have to hunt for on a map? The business major is honest – it was largely financial.

"The cost was the main attraction for me," he says. "Coming from a family that doesn't have a lot of money, it would be easier to survive in Charlottetown than to try to survive in Toronto. It was more manageable."

It has proven more manageable from a personal standpoint, too. The smallness of the city has made the experience of moving to a foreign country a lot less intimidating and impersonal.

"You see more familiar faces. Strangers care for you more here."

"When I was looking at my options, I felt like I had more of a chance, if I like it here, to stay here. It's more welcoming, accepting."

He's in his last semester at UPEI, after which he is considering law school at the University of New Brunswick, just a few hours down the road. He's grown attached to this little pocket of the world.

"It feels like home."

Henry Yin

Back in Beijing, Henry Yin's claim to fame was his movie-star boss: He was a web designer for action-film actor Jackie Chan. In Charlottetown, he has latched onto another star performer – selling real estate in the city's hot housing market.

"It's been awesome, [with] all the newcomers coming to PEI. I've been very busy," he says, noting that many apartment dwellers arriving here from China find they can afford to own a house here. "It's a good opportunity for me."

The 38-year-old Mr. Yin moved to Charlottetown in 2014 with his wife and two young sons, now ages 4 and 7. Part of their reason for leaving Beijing was the unwieldy size of the city – which was part of the reason he gravitated toward much smaller Charlottetown.

"We looked at Toronto, but the houses are very expensive. And I don't like the big city – you waste so much time in traffic," he says. "Here, I'm only seven minutes from my home to my office. In 10 or 15 minutes, I can go everywhere.

"It's a beautiful island – fresh air, safe foods. That's very important for my family. The winter is a bit longer than in Beijing," he says. "But my kids love the snow."

Pam Arora

Pam Arora, 52, and her husband Joe, 55, already had two grown children and a well-established business in New Delhi selling handcrafted jewellery, when they decided to make the jump to Canada in 2015. Pam describes it as a lifestyle decision.

"The quality of life in Delhi is becoming really bad … there's a lot of air pollution, it's becoming very difficult to live there. There is development, but it's very chaotic," she says from their jewellery shop, Pam & Joe Handcrafted, in the heart of downtown Charlottetown. "It was taking a toll on us. We wanted a better life for ourselves."

"People of Prince Edward Island are very nice. The air is pure, the sky is always blue. We love it here."

She adds that setting up the business in mid-2016 was relatively painless, compared with the bureaucratic complications entrepreneurs in India routinely face.

"It was very easy to get a [business] licence – no bribes required. In India, you have to bribe officers at every step."

But while the business has been building, it still isn't turning a profit. In a city where so much retail trade is driven by the big summer tourist season, the brass ring for their store would be to land a booth at the seaport, where the cruise ships come in. "We are trying very hard to secure a spot. I've been wait-listed for two years now," she says.

"Of course I want to stay here. But I cannot have my business running into losses [again] next year. Having a spot at the seaport is a very bright chance for me to come out of the losses.

"I have to keep my fingers crossed."

Samia Alkhouri

One of the big attractions to Charlottetown for Samia Alkouri and her family isn't one that even crosses the mind of most Canadians. It's a place her three kids won't be ducking bullets.

"My children [ages 15, 10 and 2] witnessed fighting and shooting in front of them," she says of their life in the countryside outside of Damascus, the capital of Syria, a country decimated by a six-year civil war.

Her family came to Charlottetown as refugees in mid-2016, thanks to the sponsorship of a local church and with help from relatives who had arrived before them. They're part of a burgeoning Syrian community in Charlottetown; the city has taken in more than 300 refugees from the war-torn country in the past two years.

Ms. Alkouri spoke only a little English when she arrived, but she's improving fast – so much so that she now works at front reception at the PEI Association for Newcomers to Canada, greeting the steady flow of clients seeking help and information from the non-profit immigrant-settlement agency.

"I imagined that it would be so difficult for me, before I came here. But when I came here, I found everyone so welcoming," she says. "It's the perfect home for children and for me. I love it," she says. "Everybody is nice with the children.

"It's safe."