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Business Commentary An Atlantic immigration initiative? Lord knows we need bodies

Finn Poschmann is chief executive officer of the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council.

Every once in a while, governments get something right.

Last week, it was a federal-provincial initiative involving the four Atlantic-region premiers and senior federal ministers, called the "Atlantic Growth Strategy." It contains the necessary catchphrases, like clean growth, innovation and infrastructure, but it also contains something readily tangible: an immigration pilot program.

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The scheme will operate on top of the provincially driven nominee program that fast-tracks identified individuals with job offers to permanent residency. It will allow up to 2,000 additional immigrants and their families into the Atlantic region each year for three years. If successful, the program will be continued and expanded, according to federal Immigration Minister John McCallum.

The notion that this approach might "work" comes from a plan to co-ordinate the activities of multiple levels of government, schools and employers with the aim of ensuring that immigrants land and find economic success. Strangely, this is a new idea, drawing on recent experience in landing and settling Syrian refugees.

Lord knows, the Atlantic region needs bodies. Natural population growth slowed markedly here in the early 1990s, and turned negative during the course of 2012. Since 1991, the Atlantic provinces' annual population growth rate averaged 0 per cent, and total population growth has likewise been zero over the period. Together with demographic aging, this makes sustaining public finances, or pensions, no fun at all.

Now, the natural rate of population increase depends on the lifetime fertility rate of provincial residents. Because the Atlantic provinces' total fertility rate is less than the Canadian average – and trends in fertility do not shift easily – immigration is tremendously more important to future population growth than it is elsewhere.

Immigration, even at levels many times higher than Canada has seen in recent decades, cannot meaningfully affect the age structure of the country's population as a whole. But in the Atlantic area, even a comparatively small number of immigrants attracted and retained can make an important difference to population growth trends.

In 2014-15, Atlantic Canada accounted for 6.6 per cent of the Canadian population, but just 3.2 per cent of new immigrants. Were the region to have matched the Canadian average for immigrant attraction and retention relative to the resident population over any sustained period in recent decades, the region's population and population growth rate would be trending upward, rather than flat or down.

In other words, a few thousand people goes a long way 'round these parts. The pilot program is welcome.

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So what's the catch?

First, it is not news that Atlantic economic growth has been sluggish. Among Canada's 10 provinces, for instance, guess which four have unemployment rates above 8 per cent? And which four have the lowest employment-to-population ratios?

Many Canadians and government officials might look at those statistics and wonder where is the case for more bodies. But employers see things otherwise. They search high and low for skilled employees, and they routinely find themselves looking abroad.

Before hiring from abroad, many of these employers have to complete Labour Market Impact Assessments, which require them to prove a negative – that no Canadian is available to do the job. This pedantic exercise is something federal policy could usefully shed.

For many employers and in many communities, access to fresh bodies is the top concern. That speaks to the likely success of the immigration pilot, at least from a hiring perspective.

Then there are the self-inflicted impediments to bringing in or keeping new immigrants.

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Cultural insularity is one of them, and not one that governments are well placed to deal with. Yet Treasury Board president Scott Brison's recent proclamation that the dismissive phrase "come-from-way" should be banished from Atlantic idiom resonated widely. Attitudes within communities change slowly, with exposure to people and ideas, but they change.

What provincial governments can do, even if it will take time to fix, is address the fiscal mess that immigrants meet on arrival. Quebec wins for highest overall personal income taxes, but New Brunswick and Nova Scotia have achieved 50-per-cent-plus tax rates for professional income earners. The Atlantic region has the highest consumption taxes in the country and the four highest corporate income tax rates. Provincial per capita debt in Newfoundland and Labrador and in New Brunswick is downright ugly.

This is finely targeted foot-shooting. But at least governments have become aware of it.

And at least it is becoming widely accepted that Canada needs more immigrants, that immigrants are a new positive for our economy. It is nice to see policy reflect that reality.

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