On March 2nd, a family of seven Syrian refugees landed in Halifax and were met by a large contingent of their host group from Lunenburg. Housing had already been found and outfitted, plans made for the children’s schooling, and a job interview scheduled for the father, an engineer. A great story, oft-repeated over the last three months here and elsewhere.

The surge of refugees—which began in December and concluded at the end of February—saw immigrants arriving mainly on government-chartered aircraft. Canada has received more than 25,000 refugees since November 4th, of whom one-third were privately sponsored.

Now, on a slower pace, the government expects to get to its original goal of 25,000 total government-assisted refugees (GARs) by the end of 2016. The number of privately sponsored refugees (PSRs) will likely reach 10,000.

Nova Scotia has already received more than 900 Syrians and hopes to reach 1,500 by the end of this year. A thousand of them will be children. PSRs have been welcomed in 23 communities—from Amherst to North Sydney to Yarmouth.

So far, only Halifax is certified to have the necessary infrastructure to support GARs, but Sydney was among the first in Canada seeking to become eligible when a new opportunity was created in early February.

This will add to the success already being experienced with other immigrants. Not including Syrians, immigrants increased from 2,527 in 2013 to approximately 3,300 in 2015.

The province has been busy adding new provincial nominee streams to its roster, and is pressing the federal government to raise or eliminate the ceilings (regrettably reduced in 2016) on how many can come. Retention rates continue to improve, reaching 74% in the most recently available data.

All of this suggests an important shift in attitude by Nova Scotians who have historically been ambivalent about welcoming newcomers, particularly in rural areas. Perhaps the sight of empty chairs in classrooms and the consequent threat of losing schools accounts for some of the difference.

In some areas, jobs that are important to the economy are going unfilled. In New Brunswick, which has so far received 50% more refugees than Nova Scotia, processors have had to throw away thousands of pounds of lobster because of worker shortages.

The Ivany report called for immigrant levels to rise to 7,000 per year. We are part way there, and 2016 will be an excellent year because of the Syrian arrivals. But it is much too early to declare victory.

  1. The refugees will need far more financial and social support than other immigrants. They typically have few resources, often speak little English or French, and have no immediate job prospects. Many have lost or left behind family members and have their own physical or emotional scars.
  2. In and around Halifax there will be a critical mass of Syrians which will enable them to form their own cultural groups, as now exist (for example) with our Greek, Italian, and Lebanese communities. These groups can contribute to improving retention rates.
  3. Major influxes of refugees will be rare, so reaching the goal of 7,000 annually must be achieved with non-refugee immigrants. That is more than double the 2015 level.
  4. It is odd that the government does not have goals for how many total immigrants we should be attracting each year en route to achieving the target.
  5. More recent immigrants (of all kinds) have higher unemployment rates than other Canadians. Extra effort is needed to help them succeed.

The ultimate goal is population growth, and not only through immigrants. We should also examine ways to make it easy for Nova Scotians who have moved to other parts of Canada to come back—especially those with young families. No cultural adaption needed there.

Our population is on track to age rapidly and diminish. Unless we dramatically increase the number of families moving to Nova Scotia, we will have 100,000 fewer workers in ten years’ time. This is our most important challenge. We should consider every mechanism that will help make our population grow.


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