Immigration Numbers

Nova Scotia deserves credit for setting ambitious targets for increasing immigration. Too bad the actual numbers have been moving in the opposite direction.

Not many Nova Scotians think this is an urgent problem. It isn’t in the sense that there will be any immediate impact of failure.

But in a decade’s time, there will begin an inevitable slow-motion collision between the growing shortage of workers and growing population of seniors needing labour-intensive services.

By the time those impacts are being felt, it will be too late to solve the problem.

The 2010 target was 3,600 immigrants. That target was missed but, undeterred, government has raised the goal to 5,000 for 2015 and 7,200 for 2020. In 2012 we only attracted 2,370 immigrants, down from 2,586 five years earlier.

Immigration is badly needed. Births now barely exceed deaths and we had a net loss of 3,000 to other provinces. Unless immigration to Nova Scotia dramatically increases, we will experience relentless population decline.

Our problem is worse than it appears. We are older than the Canadian average and already have the highest proportion of over sixty-fives in the country. Over the next twenty years, our working-age population between 25 and 64 will reduce by 100,000.

Jurisdictions that have tried to encourage larger families have had little success, in spite of substantial financial incentives. Implementing a successful immigration strategy is the only remaining option to increase our numbers. Making it happen is extraordinarily important.

A crucial feature of provinces (especially Manitoba) with successful immigration strategies is the use of the provincial nominee program. Although ultimate approval stills rests with the federal government, this allows provinces to proactively pursue immigrants. The federal process is built to be a filter. The provincial nominee program allows the province to act as a magnet.

The federal government has unhelpfully established quota limits on use of the nominee program. Because it is based on history, the number for Nova Scotia started at a very low 500 families. It was temporarily raised to 700 for 2012 but there is no indication that even this inadequate level will be continued in 2013.

The provincial strategy that was published in 2010 contains some sensible ideas:

1) Begin the welcoming process long before the immigrant arrives including steps to receive local accreditation

2) Partner with employers to help those here on work visas, and with universities for international students

3) Work to welcome the entire family, not just the qualifying immigrant, to improve retention

4) Advocate with the federal government for a much larger quota of provincial nominees

Employers and immigrants seem to be satisfied with the program. It is interesting to note that 86% of nominees were already in Nova Scotia, primarily as temporary foreign workers or international students.

As would be expected, China and the United Kingdom are among the leading sources of nominees. More surprisingly, Iran is the runaway leader with 20% of the total. Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines are about tied for fourth place.

The total numbers are still vastly less than what we need. This slowly ticking time bomb is an enormous threat to the long term viability of our province. What more can be done?

Clearly, job opportunity is a crucial factor. The province’s poor record in job creation represents a serious obstacle to attraction.

Perhaps that, and the absence of active overseas recruiting, is why almost all our provincial nominees are people already working or studying here.

Secondly, the federal government must continue to raise the quota available to Nova Scotia. The province moved quickly to reach the new limit of 700 families in 2012 so indications are that more can be done.

Perhaps just as important, there needs to be a deeper understanding throughout our communities of how important this is. At the moment, it a topic mostly of interest to economists and statisticians.

The provincial government has given remarkably little energy to rallying Nova Scotians around this goal. In Manitoba, which attracts almost eight times as many immigrants as we do, there is a well rooted understanding of its importance.

Strong and prolonged political leadership is required.

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