(This article has been translated into French.)

Immigration has always taken centre stage in policy-making when it comes to Canada’s economic development. Canada has been one of the countries with the highest proportion of immigrants in its population.

However, since immigrants tend to settle in large metropolitan areas, immigration policy does not seem to benefit all regions across Canada. This is particularly relevant in the Atlantic provinces, which have not been able to attract a very high number of immigrants in past years. There is therefore a fear that new immigration targets aiming to attract over 400,000 immigrants per year will further increase the divide between Canadian regions.

Difficult demographic situation in Atlantic Canada

In the Atlantic provinces, the aging of the population has accelerated. The situation is made worse by negative interprovincial migration that has been going on for years. Those leaving the region are often young workers and this has worsened labour shortages.

These effects are already being felt. According to the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, Atlantic Canada’s labour force shrank 2.4 per cent between 2012 and 2018. The situation is also not expected to improve as its labour market is predicted to further shrink by 229,000 as people retire over the next 10 years. This corresponds to a decrease of about 19 per cent of the current labour force. These labour problems have a greater impact on rural regions, which represent a large part of the region’s population.

All these factors increase the demographic difficulties present in the region. According to projections done by Statistics Canada, the population of the Atlantic provinces may begin decreasing starting in 2035.

Immigration: a hope for the region?

Immigration has often been considered as a tool to counter some of these problems. However, in the past, the Atlantic provinces have had some of the lowest rates of immigrant attraction in Canada. In 2019, Atlantic Canada made up 6.4 per cent of the total population yet only attracted 5.2 per cent of Canada’s new permanent residents. This was already a significant improvement compared to 2009, when the Atlantic provinces only attracted 2.7 per cent of all immigrants in Canada. This increase is in large part due to the success of new immigration programs.

The traditional immigration programs such as the Federal Skilled Worker Program, introduced in 1967 and designed to attract workers with experience, are available to the Atlantic provinces.  However, these programs have not been able to attract many immigrants to Atlantic Canada.

The Provincial Nominee Program was created in the late 1990s to help smaller provinces attract immigrants. This gave provinces more flexibility in their choice of immigrants. This program, which requires a job offer in the province of destination, contributed to increasing the number of immigrants in the Atlantic provinces. In the 15 years following its creation, the number of new immigrants coming to the region increased by more than three times.

The program that has so far had the most success in achieving its goals is the Atlantic Immigration Pilot Program. It was created by the government of Canada along with the provincial governments of the Atlantic provinces in 2017. It aims to increase the hiring of skilled foreign workers who want to settle in the Atlantic provinces. Furthermore, it aims to attract international students who obtained their diploma in the region. A job offer is required just like the Provincial Nominee Program. However, a lot of emphasis is put on the integration of new immigrants in the region. In 2019, after only two years since its inception, the program was already accounting for 29 per cent of the total number of economic immigrants in the Atlantic provinces.

The picture is encouraging when looking at the retention rates of new immigrants arriving with this program. According to the evaluation of the pilot program published in 2020, the retention rates of new immigrants two years after their arrival was around 90 per cent compared to 82 per cent for the Provincial Nominee Program and the traditional immigration programs.

What will be the long-term impact of this pilot program? In 2017, just prior to its creation, the retention rates of new immigrants 10 years after their arrival for Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick were between 54 and 45 per cent. Prince Edward Island was even farther behind with a retention rate of 24 per cent. These regional retention rates were significantly lower when compared to the national average of 86 per cent.

The attraction of international students could be a key aspect of future immigration in the Atlantic provinces. This group represents ideal candidates for immigration: they have high qualifications from their postsecondary education, and are very familiar with Canada, which helps their integration.

Canadian immigration policy and the Atlantic provinces

Canada recently decided to increase considerably its immigration targets. The new targets aim to welcome 401,000 immigrants in 2021, 411,000 in 2022, and 421,000 in 2023 while previous targets had aimed to bring in 351,000 new immigrants in 2021 and 361,000 in 2022. According to some, these should be even higher. It begs two questions: Are these levels of immigration necessary to guarantee prosperity in Canada and might they increase inequalities between regions?

Mass immigration brings greater economic growth, but this is principally because the population is increasing. Immigration is not a magic solution. It is only part of the solution to labour shortages. Other initiatives such as keeping older people in the workforce, increasing fertility rates, and promoting technological innovation can have larger impacts.

Even though the programs mentioned above have increased immigration in Atlantic Canada, they are far from reversing historical trends. The new Canadian immigration targets could increase inequalities across regions if the Atlantic provinces are unable to attract and retain enough new immigrants.

Furthermore, New Brunswick (along with other provinces) is trying to attract more francophone immigrants. However, due to the importance of English as an international language, it is to be expected that most immigrants will prefer English to French as their language of choice. This may influence Canada’s linguistic duality as we know it today.

The ever-increasing levels of immigration that are proposed seem to be benefiting mainly the largest provinces. In these larger urban centres, immigrants may feel more comfortable. Therefore, for the smaller provinces to reap the same benefits, efforts must be made to make these new Canadians want to stay. Until that can be done, immigration alone will not be able to solve Atlantic Canada’s problems.

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Paul Bates
Paul Bates is studying mathematics and economics at the University of Ottawa.
Gilles Grenier
Gilles Grenier is professor emeritus of economics at the University of Ottawa. He is author of several publications that focus on wages and other market attributes. He is particularly interested in characteristics related to language and immigration.

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