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In only a few years, the people of New Brunswick have gone from ambivalent to enthusiastic on immigration. Demographics lie behind the shift, but that doesn’t make it any less welcome.

Commentators – including me – have stated that the cultural homogeneity of the Maritimes can deter people from moving there, stifling innovation and growth. A 2014 report on the parlous state of the Nova Scotia economy spoke of the “barriers stemming from negative attitudes and even racism when it comes to welcoming new people into our communities and hiring people ‘from away.' ”

Six years later, a poll conducted by Narrative Research for the New Brunswick Multicultural Council showed that 80 per cent of the province’s residents believed immigrants are important for economic growth. (The telephone poll of 400 people conducted May 7-20 has a stated margin of error of 5 per cent.)

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Alex LeBlanc, executive director of the council, believes attitudes toward immigration in the region have been transformed in a few short years.

“People finally understand the demographic wall,” he said in an interview. A chorus of municipal and business leaders "are not mincing words on immigration. They’re speaking up and saying this is a good thing for our province, it’s necessary, and we’re doing it.”

“Part of it is pure, powerful economic forces at play,” said Richard Saillant, an economist and author based in Moncton. Because poorer and more rural areas have higher fertility rates than affluent urbanized areas, Maritimers produced a particularly large cohort of children during the baby boom – surplus labour that increased unemployment and sent many down the road to Central Canada.

But now the boomers are retiring, increasing demands on health care and creating labour shortages that only immigrants can fill.

“People understand, employers are communicating to them, that in order to preserve our jobs we need to welcome more people in our communities," Mr. Saillant said.

Politicians, once equivocal on immigration, have become increasingly bullish in recruiting newcomers under the Provincial Nominee Program and the Atlantic Immigration Pilot. In 2015, a total of 2,580 permanent residents settled in New Brunswick. Last year the figure was 6,000. Premier Blaine Higgs has set a goal of 10,000 annually by 2027.

This progress has been put at risk by the pandemic. Canada had planned to bring in 341,000 permanent residents this year. But only 4,000 were admitted in April. That number increased to 11,000 in May, according to data provided by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. And the number is expected to increase further in June.

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Despite the monthly increases, the country will almost certainly not meet this year’s immigration target. Nonetheless, "there have been no changes to the immigration levels plan,” said Kevin Lemkay, a spokesman for Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino, via e-mail. The minister will explain this fall how the government plans to make up for this year’s losses.

Immigration is a self-reinforcing phenomenon. As New Brunswick becomes more diverse, its people become more comfortable with that diversity.

“People feel the change in the trajectory of the province,” said Adrienne O’Pray, head of the New Brunswick Business Council. Driven by immigration and internal migration, the province’s population grew by 6,134, to 780,021, between April and September last year. Between 2011 and 2016 the province’s population had fallen.

“People saw firsthand that their community would gain from newcomers,” Ms. O’Pray said. As newcomers arrived and settled in, schools that were at risk of closing stayed open. Businesses had more customers. Employers were able to expand now that new hires were available.

That said, outmigration remains a challenge for New Brunswick. A report earlier this year from the New Brunswick Institute of Research, Data and Training at University of New Brunswick states that only 50 per cent of immigrants brought in under the Provincial Nominee Program are still in the province after five years.

But the cycle should prove virtuous rather than vicious. The more newcomers who stick with the province, the more who are likely to stick in the future, because people from their home country are already there.

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Mr. LeBlanc says municipalities across the province are competing with each other to develop the most robust plans for attracting and retaining newcomers. It’s not something many would have predicted even a few years ago. Let’s hope the COVID-19 shutdown doesn’t slow the momentum.

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