The federal government and the four Atlantic premiers are launching a three-year pilot project to dramatically increase immigration, nearly doubling the intake into the region, as part of a new strategy to counter aging populations and slumping economies.
Under this immigration plan – a key plank in the new Atlantic Growth Strategy, which is also aimed at boosting job creation and innovation – the federal government will admit 2,000 immigrants and their families in 2017. This is in addition to what the provinces are allowed under the current provincial nominee program.
If the new program works well, the number of spots could increase over the remaining two years. The number of immigrants will not be divided equally among the four provinces; rather, the program is focused on better matching the skills of immigrants to the requirements of local businesses and employers.
"We have a collective responsibility to banish the term 'come from away' from our vocabulary," Treasury Board President Scott Brison, a Nova Scotia MP, told The Globe and Mail in an interview after the announcement on Monday.
He was referring to the term Atlantic Canadians give to people who now live in the region, but weren't born there. Newcomers say the term makes otherwise friendly Atlantic Canadians seem cliquey and insular.
Mr. Brison said the region now has to start building a "welcoming culture to attract and retain new Canadians." If the project is successful, it could provide a template for other provinces.
This new strategy is being promoted as a fix for the future of the region. In addition to the promise of more immigrants, it is also aimed at improving infrastructure, such as providing better broadband connectivity, marketing the region internationally for its food products and tourism and creating clean-energy jobs as Atlantic Canada moves to a low-carbon economy.
It reflects increasing co-operation between Ottawa and the four Atlantic provinces. All 32 Atlantic ridings went Liberal in last year's election and the four provincial governments are led by Liberal premiers.
The announcement was made on Prince Edward Island by the four Liberal premiers and six federal cabinet ministers – the ministers from each of the Atlantic provinces plus Immigration Minister John McCallum and Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains – at Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay's converted barnon his farm with its breathtaking views of St. Peters Bay.
However, in trying to tackle the profound challenges in the region – three of the four provinces, with the exception of PEI, now have more people dying every year than being born – the politicians must also deal with a perception that immigrants will take jobs away from local residents.
"We need to be frank about ourselves. If we are unprepared to do things differently, we're going to stay where we've been, which is in a declining population and the worst performing economy in the country," Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil said at the news conference after the announcement.
He has been concerned with increasing immigration levels since his government took office three years ago. The federal government had capped immigration levels at 700 for his province in 2013, but had increased them to 1,350 just before last year's election.
"This has been an issue that I have really been pushing, and premiers have all recognized we need to grow our population," he said in an interview with The Globe. He said the federal government has also committed to streamlining the process of bringing in immigrants, making it faster.
Mr. Brison noted, too, there is an emphasis on trying to retain the immigrants by working with the provincial governments and employers to help ensure the immigration is tied to labour market needs.
The strategy, however, has its detractors.
Marco Navarro-Genie, president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a conservative think tank in Halifax, says the announcement "favours politics over effective policy."
"More people alone can't fix the economy, especially when we can't retain the people that we do bring and we can't keep our own children working here," he said. "So we're not really addressing the real issue. The real issue is the economic conditions that prompt people to leave."
Those conditions, he said, include that Atlantic Canada has higher personal and sales taxes than most provinces do. Food, gas, natural gas and electricity are expensive, too.
In addition to the heavy tax burden, he said the provinces are opposed to certain types of economic activity that would bring growth and investment to the region. For example, three of the four provinces, he said, have either legal or regulatory bans on hydraulic fracturing – or fracking. He said there is a "huge contradiction" in the fact that some Atlantic Canadians are leaving the region to work in places that are fracking to extract natural gas.
Mr. Navarro-Genie also criticized the federal government, which played a big part in this announcement, with stalling on approval of the Energy East pipeline that would move oil from western Canada to the refinery in Saint John.
"We keep postponing it and postponing it while our children leave for greener pastures," he said. "And the federal government … is one of the main culprits of stalling on the pipeline."