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We need more immigrants – it's in our national interestFernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

After 20 years of attracting nearly 60 per cent of all newcomers to Canada, Ontario's share of immigration is in steep decline and threatens to intensify the province's economic struggles.

The first population figures from the 2011 census will be released Wednesday and they're expected to show that Ontario's rate of growth has dropped. Since 2001, Ontario has seen its share of immigration drop nearly 20 percentage points. In 2009, Ontario received nearly 107,000 new immigrants, the lowest number in 30 years.

"Ontario's going to show declining growth, that's for sure," said Doug Norris, senior vice-president at Environics Analytics and a leading expert on the census. "They've pulled immigrants out of Ontario, and immigrants drive growth, so Ontario's going to be down."

The primary reason is a restructuring of Canadian immigration that gave more control to provincial governments. Ontario, for so long an irresistible magnet to highly educated skilled workers, was slow to adjust. The status quo had served it well. While provinces such as Manitoba, British Columbia and Alberta jumped at the newly created provincial nominee program early in the decade, Ontario did little.

"Ontario didn't use [the nominee program]very much because for a long time it thought it was getting the numbers and also the kinds of immigrants it wanted," said Leslie Seidle, research director for immigration at the Institute for Research on Public Policy.

While the number of immigrants remained constant at about 250,000 per year, Ontario's share shrank. The other provinces used the nominee program to gobble up applicants, such as tradespeople, who don't fare well in the points system for skilled-worker applications. As the skilled-worker stream declined, so did Ontario.

It's only recently that the Ontario government woke up to the significance of the numbers, said Naomi Alboim, an immigration expert who teaches public policy at Queen's University. She said the trend to a smaller share of immigration will have a major impact.

"I think it's very serious. In Ontario, we need immigration for demographic purposes, for longer-term economic objectives. There are still some significant skill shortages and these numbers are not good," she said.

Ontario still attracts by far the most immigrants of any province. And there is a significant backlog of as many as 58,000 skilled-worker applicants who would like to come to Ontario but whose applications have not been processed. The province started its own nominee program in 2007, but it brings in roughly 1,000 people a year, compared to 12,000 annually in Manitoba.

Charles Sousa, Ontario's Citizenship and Immigration Minister, said the province needs to negotiate its own deal on immigration. He said he has discussed it with his federal counterpart, Jason Kenney, and he intends to continue those talks.

"It's just not fair that Quebec, B.C., Alberta have agreements with the federal government that allow them to make decisions that we are not allowed to do. Ontario deserves to have the same equity, the same level of fairness," Mr. Sousa said. "We need to sit down and strike something that's more effective for Ontario and Canada."

One of the consequences of fewer immigrants in the province has been significant cuts to federal money for settlement services, up to $75-million over the past two years.

The South Asian Women's Centre in Toronto is one of the organizations that suffered as a result. Kripa Sekhar, the executive director, said she hasn't seen any noticeable drop in demand for services, despite statistics that show a 10-point drop in immigrants arriving in Toronto from 2006 to 2010. But after losing more than $500,000 in funding, she had to scale back her staff, laying off eight full-time employees. They still haven't found other work, she said.

"I think Ontario's nominee program needs to be strengthened," Ms. Sekhar said. "Ontario, especially Toronto, has been the story of immigrants, and it's a beautiful story. Why is it being stifled?"