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Did Someone Say Immigration Does Not Matter?

Oct 21, 2008

Centre for Municipal Studies
This should not even be a debate – but it apparently is. I am talking about the importance of immigrants. Let’s start with an analogy: hockey. Let’s remember how a certain hockey pundit, no name required, used to say that foreign-born hockey players were stealing the “jobs” of our Canadian hockey players.

Now let’s take a long hard look at the National Hockey League (NHL) as it stands now. Does anyone believe that the NHL would be made up of 30 teams if it only contained Canadian players? Let’s be honest, the quality of the product would never be what it is. Fact is the NHL’s openness to players from around the world has allowed it to grow. And being an economist, I view growth as a good thing.

The same holds true for the economic development of our communities. And more so now than ever before. Why? Because the paradigm is changing. The basic idea that “people go where the jobs are” is not all that true anymore. Or at least, is not the only truth out there. Companies are getting more and more worried about phenomena such as the aging of the population and weaker population growth not only in Canada but in most developed countries.

This has important implications on the behaviour of companies, not the least of which is where they choose to locate. For any business, their location decision is based on access to skilled labour. And not just for the short term, but also for the medium- and long term.

This also leads to an important implication for Canadian communities: make yourself attractive to people or else your economic future could be bleak. Already, communities in Canada that have been able to attract people have improved their economic performance relative to others. Key examples include Calgary and Toronto, which have posted very healthy rates of economic growth over the past decade. True, the Toronto economy has been struggling of late, thanks to the misfortune of the manufacturing sector, but had Toronto not been the magnet that it is been for international migrants, its economy would have posted much worse results that it has over the last few years.

The Conference Board published a report last year entitled City Magnets: Benchmarking the Attractiveness of Canada’s CMAs, which ranks Canada’s census metropolitan areas (CMAs) according to their ability to attract people. Such ability will be key to the future success of Canada’s communities, as the battle for immigrants is only in its infancy. The aging population phenomenon is not exclusive to Canada and soon many, if not most developed countries will be battling for the available pool of immigrants. Canada needs to take the lead, starting with issues such as the recognition of credentials.

Finally, for those who think that a community cannot turn things around, think again. Three of Canada’s CMAs come to mind as examples of communities that have improved their level of attractiveness to people, Saskatoon, Regina and Winnipeg. Each of these cities had been posting negative net migration flows for a long, long time, until recently. Their recent success in attracting people has been a boon to their economies and proof that with the right level of effort, a community can improve its level of attractiveness to people. Other communities must follow suit.

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