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Immigration a 'key priority' in Atlantic Canada's economic recovery from COVID-19: Panel

·5 min read

As the COVID-19 pandemic persists, the Atlantic provinces are turning to virtual recruitment and continuing to offer settlement programming, among other strategies, in order to attract and retain newcomers as part of their path to economic recovery.

In a panel hosted by Saint Mary’s University on Thursday, immigration officials from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island discussed new realities, policy challenges posed by the current pandemic and their provinces’ responses to COVID-19.

“Immigration remains a key priority across the Atlantic region and in fact across Canada as we start to economically rebuild post-COVID,” said Shelley Bent James, executive director of the Nova Scotia Office of Immigration.

Hélène Bouchard, assistant deputy minister for the Government of New Brunswick’s population growth division, called COVID-19 “the worst nightmare from an immigration perspective.”

As a result of the pandemic, she noted federal and provincial immigration offices were closed for a period of time, a lot of federal offices are “still working at a very limited capacity” and provinces’ capacity of bringing in newcomers “has reduced drastically.”

Although the Atlantic Canada region has set new records in immigration numbers over the past few years, COVID-19 travel restrictions have made it virtually impossible for the provinces to meet their target immigration numbers for 2020.

In Nova Scotia, for example, 2,535 immigrants landed in the province from the start of 2020 until the end of August 2020, compared to 5,070 during the same time period in 2019, James noted.

While there have been “many changes in immigration processes,” James said her office has continued to work with employers and Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada to “monitor and assess” changes in the immigration system, economy and labour market.

In March, she said NSOI mobilized its staff in order to continue to process immigration applications and prioritize essential workers and candidates who are currently working in the province, including those with post-graduate work permits.

The provincial immigration department has also been assisting employers in international recruitment using virtual means and placing importance on “crucial” settlement services to help with the integration and retention of newcomers, according to James.

She said NSOI will continue to focus its efforts on supporting Nova Scotia’s economic recovery through its different immigration streams.

“And we are confident that immigration will be a tool to help grow the province and continue to thrive post-COVID-19,” she added.

Jamie Aiken, CEO of Finance P.E.I. and executive director of Island Investment Development Inc., said IIDI is “doing more virtual consultations” with employers in order to attract newcomers to P.E.I. amid the pandemic.

IIDI is also working “very closely” with the P.E.I. Association for Newcomers to Canada to get feedback on pressures and obstacles newcomers are facing in the province, he added.

“We want to make sure that we respond to our new islanders here, that if we need to adjust programs or different services, that we’re getting that information in a timely manner,” he said.

In New Brunswick, Bouchard said the government’s population growth division has “put a huge focus” on retaining newcomers in the province.

“International students has been one area where we’ve really been able to work with our post-secondary institutions and reach out to those students, use the programming that we have and really get those nominations up,” she said.

“We’ve also been quite engaged from a temporary foreign worker perspective, looking at the people who are already in New Brunswick and actually make them solidified in our province.”

By leveraging “the relationships we have made over the years in key markets,” Bouchard said New Brunswick has also turned to virtual recruitment.

One of the main benefits to immigration for Atlantic Canada is growing the Atlantic provinces’ populations, all three panellists noted.

Aiken said P.E.I. has seen a two per cent increase in its population year-over-year and that immigration has been “a definite attributor,” as has the province’s “improving” retention rate.

He added immigration has helped the province fill labour gaps within critical industries that cannot be filled with local labour, create new jobs and boost its “social and cultural diversity.”

James similarly said newcomers contribute to Nova Scotia’s “education talent pool,” fill labour gaps in fields such as health-care and have helped the province reach “historic population highs,” with the province reaching an all-time high of 979,351 people in July 2020.

In New Brunswick, Bouchard highlighted a “low growth rate” and “demographic challenges” as reasons for why the province needs to keep boosting immigration.

“We’re going to have more people exiting the labour force than entering in the next 10 years than we’ve ever seen before, so we need to fill those job vacancies and some of it will be done organically and some of it will be replaced by technology and innovation and productivity improvements, but not all of it,” she said.

“So we do need newcomers to fill that gap and we do need newcomers to fill our tax base.”

Despite the immigration challenges Canada is facing, Bouchard said the Atlantic Canada region remains an “attractive destination” for immigrants due to the way it has handled the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re still seeing people interested, we’re still seeing individuals apply and the other great thing is we’re still seeing employers wanting to participate in our virtual engagement and virtual recruitment.”

Noushin Ziafati, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Chronicle Herald