Federal Immigration Minister John McCallum speaks with reporters in Halifax on Tuesday. Photo: Michael Gorman
Federal Immigration Minister John McCallum speaks with reporters in Halifax on Tuesday. Photo: Michael Gorman

As far as announcements go, this one was big — maybe, it depends.

Federal Immigration Minister John McCallum stood in front of about 120 people at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon on Tuesday to say his government is preparing to significantly increase the number of immigrants in Canada next year and Nova Scotia would be a beneficiary.

McCallum’s news was greeted enthusiastically by the chamber crowd. And why not? If it actually happens, it would be the biggest thing for this province since getting the shipbuilding contract. But it’s the lack of guarantees, and recent history, that should prevent anyone from getting too excited yet.

Consider the numbers for the last three years: in 2013 Nova Scotia took in 2,527 immigrants (1,202 from the provincial nominee program); in 2014 that crept up to 2,668 (1,399 from the provincial program); and last year it reached 3,401 (1,394 from the provincial program).

Sure, it’s nice to see that number increase year over year, but it is so miniscule in the context of this province’s population problems that it might as well be zero. It is even more frustrating in that the government cannot be accused of softpeddling this issue — Premier Stephen McNeil and provincial Immigration Minister Lena Metlege Diab have repeatedly called for the cap on immigration to be lifted altogether and, in the meantime, lobbied to get existing totals increased as we max out our quota — yet substantive change has not happened.

The reality of Tuesday’s appearance by McCallum was that the only concrete number he had was 1,350 — the number the feds were approving for this year’s provincial program, the same as it was last year, despite the country having room for a total of more than 300,000 newcomers. Put another way, the feds signed off on a number Stephen Harper’s government already approved for Nova Scotia, and it works out to about just 0.45 per cent of the immigration pie for Canada.

McCallum attempted to downplay this fact (something even Wadih Fares, one of the co-chairs of the premier’s immigration advisory council, called “disappointing” prior to introducing the minister). The Liberals are looking at 2016 as a transition year, considering how recently they came to power and the pressing need to deal with the refugee file, said McCallum.

“The real time for Nova Scotia is in the next three years — 2017, 2018, 2019 — and we will announce those levels in November.”

It sounds great, but the federal Liberals also said the way health transfers are calculated is unfair to older, smaller provinces such as Nova Scotia but they’ve since changed that view and decided it would be better to provide targetted funding for specific issues while retaining the transfer formula brought in by the former Conservative government.

In the meantime, McCallum has set up a group representing the Atlantic provinces, led by Nova Scotia, to brainstorm new ways to attract people and increase retention rates (in Nova Scotia right now it’s almost 80 per cent). The minister said he sees merit in placing an emphasis on a region that has particularly challenging demographics.

“I know that when a society faces an aging population and does not have access to immigrants, it’s a recipe for trouble,” he said, pointing to Japan as an example.

McCallum also wants his own department to become more efficient. It takes much too long for applications to be processed and the minister said he thinks there are valuable lessons to be learned from how quickly 25,000 Syrian refugees were processed.

There was lots of talk about the need to focus on international students, and how Nova Scotia is uniquely positioned to do so given the number of colleges and universities here. There is also the potential of the federal stream, which has no quota and can always be accessed more, said McCallum.

But until his own office is reformed, it seems unlikely that will provide a significant source of new people for the province. Even the premier noted that businesses here, which through new hires help bring in people via the federal stream, much prefer dealing with the provincial program because it is easier to navigate.

“If it’s their stream they want us to do, then let’s make sure that the process is as efficient [as possible],” said McCallum.

It is vitally important to this province’s future that the cap on immigration either be lifted completely or increased by a factor of many multiples. In the last five years the population of Nova Scotia has been decreasing, as rural communities continue to hollow out and municipal tax bases get thinner and thinner.

What’s more, given the level of importance the McNeil Liberals have placed on the issue and the challenges confronting the economy, the numbers McCallum announces in November could also have major implications for the provincial government’s future.

michaeltgorman@gmail.com @MichaelTGorman

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  1. Counterpoint: Nova Scotia is not dying at all. Relative to other provinces, it’s in a worse economic position. That’s about it. I agree with Francesca that the dismal, everything-is-fucked, resigned-to-decline attitude so many of us demonstrate is profoundly self-defeating, and is as much of a problem as any closed factory or bureaucratic entanglement. I know that before I moved here, expat Nova Scotians essentially warned me not to. Imagine what new immigrants must think when they land in a place where the local culture is so overwhelmingly self-effacing. We all but tell people to go elsewhere for their own good.

    In any case, to Nick’s assumption that increasing immigration is pointless because they’ll just leave:

    1. Immigrants have in recent years done better in Nova Scotia’s labour market than in most others nationwide, with higher employment rates, higher rates of employment in their chosen field, and higher wages than their national counterparts. Unsurprisingly, retention rates have been consistently improving for years. So the trend is the opposite of Nick’s prediction.

    2. Nova Scotia has an outmigration problem, but it does not have an urban outmigration problem. Haligonians may not believe it, but this city has one of the lowest levels of outmigration, including youth outmigration, of any city in the country. We lose proportionally fewer 20-40 year olds than most other cities in Canada, including Toronto, Montreal, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Regina, and virtually every second-tier Ontario city. It doesn’t matter to a new immigrant living in Halifax that Pictou’s economy sucks, any more than it matters to a new immigrant to Toronto that the economy in Timmins sucks.

    Even the rest of the province isn’t some extreme outlier, In 2015, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Quebec, PEI and New Brunswick all had higher levels of proportional outmigration than Nova Scotia. That was due to the west’s stalled economy, of course, but even in typical years, Quebec, Manitoba, and the rest of the Maritimes frequently do worse than us. Manitoba in particular has far higher proportional outmigration than Nova Scotia, virtually every year. An aggressive immigration policy is the only thing that prevents it from shrinking, and it’s a worthwhile endeavour, even if some of those newcomers leave.

    Immigration is not some panacea that will magically address all our problems. But this extreme cynicism about its value is totally unfounded. It must be a major element of any plan to improve the province’s demographic and financial standing.

  2. I totally agree: “it is vitally important to this province’s future that the cap on immigration either be lifted completely or increased by a factor of many multiples.” It’s also true that while the feds can open the door, they can’t make people stay. That’s up to this province and its people. And there’s the rub: Nick’s comment illustrates the problem. It’s not just his use of the neocon word “entitlements” instead of “benefits”, which is dismaying. It’s his list of “ifs” that are largely predicated on a narrow and negative outlook – one that kind of shuts the door again.

    Nova Scotia isn’t dying because of a lack of natural resources. For the record, has ample natural resources: unspoiled shorelines, very affordable real estate, unlimited sun, wind, and tides that can generate free power, and, judging from the past ten years, notwithstanding last winter, it has better weather than New Brunswick, New England, or the Atlantic states in the US. But that’s not the point, not really.

    Nova Scotia is dying because of a poor attitude. Nova Scotia has a downright lousy attitude, one that seems to pervade all sectors and essentially puts the “no!” in Nova Scotia. A lousy attitude is a real wet blanket on creativity; it kills aspirations; it causes brain-drain. And that translates into a slow death for the province, with death throes that make for all kinds of unnecessary difficulties for those who stay. I say this after ten years of observation, as well as direct experience. When I went through the provincial immigration program, I was told that half of the nominees leave within a few years. Wow, I thought. I soon began to see why. All too often, life here becomes a series of uphill battles with little to show for it at the end, and that gets pretty tiresome.

    It’s just not tiresome to outsiders. I’ve seen native Scotians endowed with the get-up-and-go energy it takes to succeed do just that – get up and go – because they are sick of being jerked around and treated like crap. For every tiny firm making a big splash in the news – a new kind of learning aid or advanced technology; a creative enterprise nobody thought of before – I also see a boarded-up shop and read in the paper about how it was driven out by some kind of red tape or official nastiness.

    We need to acknowledge the fact that people don’t always leave Nova Scotia because of money. Many leave in disappointment or worse. They feel unappreciated, blocked, crapped on. I was stunned when a reliable, honest contractor from here, who did great work– a rarity – suddenly stopped his excavating and began driving a truck. He told me he was frustrated and sick of the cheat-or-be-cheated mentality in construction here, sick of clients cheating him out of his money, forcing him into small claims court again and again. He wanted to be able to enjoy his work and take pride in it, not fight over it. He realized that to make it here, he’d have to be “like those assholes” and rip people off before they rip him off. “I don’t want to live like that,” he told me. Soon he moved out west.

    So, two things. First, drop the attitude. Seriously, it comes off as passive resignation paired with resentment and open hostility to anyone trying to improve things or just get along. People here are far too accustomed to being treated badly and treating others badly as well. Sure, NS has gotten a lot of raw deals over the years, and there’s a lot of fear and mistrust. But giving in to a self-defeating and hostile “can’t do – and neither can you” mentality won’t make things better. Speak out against bosses, teachers, shop owners, landlords, clerks – anybody who makes life difficult for newcomers.

    Second, stop clinging to myths and outdated modes of thinking. Immigrants are not a drain on the economy. Immigrants are a resource. Let in young, middle aged, and older people, and you open the door to a wealth of new ideas and experience, all for free, along with skills, education, and healthy bodies that didn’t cost the province a dime to produce. Immigrants don’t come for handouts and don’t want to be treated as if they do. The majority will arrive highly motivated to build a life – to get a degree, have a family, start new businesses, create and share innovations. They bring with them the guts and the drive to make their ideas work, kids who infuse schools with new interest and energy, and a new culture to share. Until and unless they find that the difficulties of building a new life here outweigh the benefits, the vast majority of new Nova Scotians will stay put. The same is true of refugees, if not more so. With an improved attitude and a genuine openness to new ideas, this province can benefit enormously from them.

  3. I’m fairly certain there’s a mathematical error in the piece, which undercuts the premise. The 1,350-person nominee cap isn’t 0.0045 percent of Canada’s 300,000-person immigration total; it’s 0.45%. And the more accurate comparison would be not to the total number of immigrants to Canada, but to the total admitted via all the PNP programs, which is about 50,000.

    In that case, it’s about 2.5% of the PNP streams’ total, or, about the same as Nova Scotia’s proportion of the Canadian population. So while there’s room for improvement, it doesn’t seem all that miniscule.

    Obviously it remains to be seen if the feds follow through in coming years, but the PNP limit to Nova Scotia has nearly doubled in the past 24 months. This is a big deal. 3,400 people per year is nearly triple the total outmigration in 2015. It’s almost 1,000 higher than the average immigration intake in the past decade. Most of those are ending up in Halifax, and if ti persists, within a few years those numbers will have added up to a noticeable shift in the city’s demographics, for the better.

    Skepticism is always advisable when dealing with government promises. But this is actually a good-news story, with minor caveats, not the other way around.

    1. You’re right about the math error. Thanks. Forgot to move the decimal.

  4. Importing young people from abroad will fix nothing, and will actually make matters worse by adding to the ranks of the unemployed and by suppressing wages (and therefore tax revenue). If we bring in foreigners who are required to stay in Nova Scotia, they will displace locals because employers will prefer people with few or no alternatives. If we bring in foreigners as full Canadian citizens (which in my mind, is the only appropriate and just way to bring in people), then they will do exactly the same thing that many Nova Scotians have already done and leave.

    The entitlements of the older generations were based on projections of perpetual economic growth fuelled by American hegemony and cheap oil, both of which are going away, temporary dips notwithstanding. There is no way to pay for someone to sit around collecting a pension and consuming health care. Nova Scotia is dying because we have little in the way of natural resources to exploit (most benefit goes to giant offshore corporations anyway) and little manufacturing (Thanks NAFTA), and little high-tech (it’s all in the states and Ontario).

    People who advocate for bringing in migrants to work at jobs that no longer exist to pay taxes to prop up the expectations and entitlements of boomers are at best misguided, or at worst, prostitutes for the business class, who want to create a class of Canadians that can be made to work not for money, but out of fear of being deported back to a hellhole in the Middle East.

  5. Get over to Europe and fast track as many skilled people as possible. A lot of Poles moved to Britain,started businesses and spoke the language. Get into France and entice skilled young residents and families, they won’t need language classes, will settle in rapidly and need less assistance.

    1. More Poles would be good, especially if they bring fine kielbasa, pierogies, mushroom soup, zurek (it’s a sour soup), well, you get the idea……!