PERTH - Lanark County wants not only your poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free, we also need your MBAs, your best and your brightest too.
If we want to keep our economy going, that is.
“Always the question is when we talk about newcomers is… why is diversity so important?” said Chela Breckon, project manager of the Local Immigration Partnership for Lanark and Renfrew counties.
She was speaking during a breakfast seminar hosted by the Perth and District Chamber of Commerce on Jan. 24, at the Dufferin Square boardroom. “Two thirds of our Canadian population growth comes from immigration. Population growth corresponds to economic development.”
In fact, this year alone, immigration will account for all of Canada’s labour force growth, and for all net population growth by 2031, according to Citizenship and Immigration Canada. The ministry has also found that Canadian-born replacement rates are falling and that, soon, any population growth will come solely from immigration.
“We know that less and less people are coming to Lanark County,” said Breckon. “Our recent newcomers are arriving to the major centres. They are not seeing those smaller centres as attractive.”
To illustrate her point, Breckon asked all of the people aged 50 and older to raise their hands. A good portion of the business leaders present raised their hands.
“Imagine all of those people gone in 15 years, because you’ve retired,” said Breckon. “We will not be able to secure the comfort of senior citizen living as it is now,” without immigrants.
While Canada faces a surplus of unskilled labour, it will see a deficit of skilled labour, totaling an estimated 1.8 million, by 2031.
Lanark County was able to lure immigrants to the area back before 1961, Breckon said, mostly British and Irish immigrants, as well as quite a few Dutch settlers, in the 16 years after the end of the Second World War.
“Those people coming here (now) are not choosing to come here (to Lanark County) as their first choice, or even their second choice,” said Breckon. “(But) the people who come to Canada, they want to work. Toronto has been the hotspot for immigration for decades and decades,” with second-and-third generation spillover then to other parts of Ontario. But even now, this is not so.
“No longer is Toronto the for-sure destination for immigration,” said Breckon, pointing to Vancouver, Montreal and many western cities like Calgary, which are crying out for skilled labour. “We know we can do a better job. We have to sell them,” on Lanark County.
One of the ways she suggested doing this was to draw immigrants who are already here in places like Ottawa and Toronto on the benefits of small-town living, but also an hour’s drive away from major centres like Kingston.
She admitted that, because of the small numbers of immigrants in Lanark County, “the funding does not come here,” for federal resources for employers looking to fill skilled roles with immigrants. However, Hire Immigrants Ottawa’s catchment area does extend to cover Lanark County.
While Canada has always been welcoming to immigrants, there are certain traps that employers may set for prospective immigrant employees and, indeed, themselves. For example, creating non-biased interview questions that are culturally sensitive is a good way to get the best response possible from a prospective employee, while recognizing his or her cultural background.
Asking him or her, for example, how they would handle conflict with a manager is a non-starter for people from some cultures.
“That happens only in North America,” said Breckon with a laugh. “Conflicts do not occur with managers outside of North America.”
Another positive step employers can take to attract immigrants to an area is to highlight the success of immigrants who have already made a name for themselves in the area, as has been done in Renfrew County.
“They certainly do survive and thrive,” said Breckon. “We know that these gems do exist in Lanark County.”
One reason why cities trump rural areas when it comes to immigration is because of so-called “ethnic enclaves,” like Chinatown or Little Italy in Ottawa.
“Newcomers go where the familiarity is,” said Breckon. “They would like that familiarity as soon as they arrive. (But) we can present ourselves as that warm and friendly neighbour…Living in Chinatown is not the Canadian experience.”
Already, settlement agencies are arranging two-hour bus tours of Lanark County of immigrants from Ottawa.
“The reason they (want to) live here is because of the Canadian experience,” said Breckon, to teach them that “they are great to each other, people who live in small towns.”
While racism exists everywhere, areas where immigrants are seen less often may have built up more unfair stereotypes about immigrants, like they arrive and hit Canadian social services straight off of the plane.
“We try to break down those perceptions,” said Breckon. “Perth is welcoming.”
Rebecca Wissler, a local realtor, has lived in Canada for 10 years, and while she is glad of her move from Great Britain, she was frustrated by the many unnecessary obstacles that were in her way to get here.
“They (immigrants) want to move here and start up businesses,” said Wissler. “(But) they have to jump through hoops. The federal government needs to be doing some cleaning up of its system.”
Wissler warned that Canada risks losing highly-skilled workers to other countries because, when there are too many hoops or delays, “they go somewhere else.”
“It seems like you get your face slapped every time you turn around,” Wissler said of the immigration process. “How will we overcome these barriers that the federal government has put up?”
One such obstacle is having foreign credentials recognized in Canada, which leads to the familiar sight of doctors driving cabs.
“There is no quickness in terms of immigrating,” admitted Breckon, though there are sometimes unintended good consequences of this. “Those professionals often become entrepreneurs because they are not ready to accept an entry level position.”
Already Breckon is hearing anecdotal evidence that any European immigration to the area, primarily after the war, is starting to retire. She heard of one business owner in Almonte who cannot afford to let her 65-year-old German seamstress retire because she simply cannot find someone with comparable skills, though she has heard that there are many skilled seamstresses in places like Thailand looking to immigrate.
“We have to get employers comfortable with hiring skilled immigrants,” said Breckon. “We know that the labour shortage is coming. We don’t want our small towns to be the victims of this.”