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Small Towns Are Hometowns for Immigrants

Douglas Watt, Associate Director, Organizational Effectiveness and Learning
October 13, 2009

Immigration is good for small communities. And small towns have much to offer new Canadians, including attractive employment opportunities and a high quality of life. Employers must be the driving force in attracting and recruiting immigrants to small communities; however, they cannot do it alone. To make small towns welcoming places for immigrants, the entire community must be involved.

A report for the Conference Board’s Leaders’ Roundtable on Immigration highlights four immigrant-friendly communities that have implemented successful approaches to immigration: Winkler, Manitoba; Brooks, Alberta; Yellowknife, Northwest Territories; and Florenceville–Bristol, New Brunswick.

Mutual Benefits

Immigrants can help revitalize local economies, fill critical skills shortages, bring new investment to communities, and offer access to global markets. Small towns offer immigrants a lower cost of living, more affordable housing, safer neighbourhoods, and faster economic integration than large cities do. Yet, over 80 per cent of Canadian immigrants settle in large urban centres—primarily Toronto, Montréal, and Vancouver—while small cities and rural areas are struggling to retain people and jobs.

Immigration: An Ingredient for Success

There is no cookie-cutter model for small towns to use, but four key elements need to be in place if a town is to attract and retain immigrants:

  • Immigration should be an integral part of a community’s long-term economic development strategy, rather than a temporary solution to address a short-term labour shortage or offset a declining population.
  • Employers need to provide jobs that match immigrants’ skills and education levels, and demonstrate a commitment to recruiting and retaining immigrant talent.
  • Community stakeholders—such as immigrant services agencies, training providers, libraries, and health-care facilities—must support the attraction, settlement, integration, and retention of immigrants.
  • A critical mass of immigrants in a community is needed for long-term success. The presence of ethnic and cultural networks in a community is the number-one factor in determining where immigrants will first settle—even topping the availability of jobs.

Success Stories

The case studies of the four communities (defined as having a population of 50,000 or less and located outside a census metropolitan area)—illustrate what works for them:

  • Winkler, Manitoba. Since 1996, Winkler has capitalized on its Mennonite roots by attracting Mennonite families from Europe and from South and Central America. The initial arrival of immigrants, along with a strong network of community support, started a “chain migration” that has made Winkler one of the fastest-growing rural communities in Canada.
  • Brooks, Alberta. An influx of immigrants to work at Lakeside Packers—predominantly from Sudan, Somalia, and Ethiopia—has made Brooks one of the most ethnically diverse small cities in Canada.
  • Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. The town’s diamond industry has attracted immigrants from countries around the world, such as Armenia, Mauritius, India, China, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Yellowknife also has a remarkably high number of temporary foreign workers who become permanent residents.
  • Florenceville–Bristol, New Brunswick. McCain Foods Limited has recruited foreign information technology workers for its Global Technology Centre since 1996. Collaboration among local stakeholders helps explain why Florenceville–Bristol has been so successful in integrating and retaining its immigrants.

Attracting Immigrants

Recent changes to Canada’s immigration system—notably to the Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) Program and the employer stream of the Provincial and Territorial Nominee Programs (PNPs)—have created a more flexible system that benefits employers and communities. Manitoba and New Brunswick, for example, have successfully used PNPs and the TFW Program to direct international workers with specific skills to areas where they are most needed. In Manitoba, 28 per cent of provincial nominees in 2007 went somewhere other than Winnipeg. Some employers are able to help their temporary foreign workers obtain permanent resident status, and many of these workers choose to remain in their host community.

Community Support Vital

To retain immigrants and international workers, communities must be prepared to provide access to affordable housing, health services, public transit or alternative transportation, and education services. Collaboration among employers, municipalities, immigration service providers, education institutions, and other stakeholders is crucial.

Douglas Watt Douglas Watt
Associate Director
Organizational Effectiveness and Learning
Immigrant-Friendly Communities: Making Immigration Work for Employers and Other Stakeholders in Small-Town Canada

Related Publications
Renewing Immigration: Towards a Convergence and Consolidation of Canada’s Immigration Policies and Systems

Related Executive Network
Leaders’ Roundtable on Immigration