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.