“Why do so few stay?”: Explaining and addressing the lack of immigrant retention in Atlantic Canada

By Ainslie Pierrynowski (AIMS on Campus Student Fellow)

Earlier on this blog, AIMS on-campus fellow James O’Keefe-Daw delved into the demographic challenges facing Atlantic Canada. Mr. O’Keefe-Daw has joined other commentators, including a number of AIMS researchers, in drawing attention to the region’s ageing, declining population—and its fiscal consequences. Atlantic Canada’s shrinking labour force impedes the region’s “ability to generate output and income,” according to a 2006 AIMS study. This demographic shift also affects investment and production levels, the number of taxpayers, and the demands put on government services and spending. In light of these difficulties, AIMS as well as multiple scholars, advocates, and policymakers in the region have pushed for increased immigration to mitigate Atlantic Canada’s population decline. Despite growing immigration numbers and the launch of a federal government pilot program designed to attract newcomers to Atlantic Canada, immigrant retention rates remain low, with almost half of those who come to Atlantic Canada leaving after five years. As AIMS President Marco Navarro-Génie suggests, Atlantic Canada faces a Catch-22, in that the region needs more people to purchase products and services, start businesses, and support government services, but Atlantic Canada needs to provide economic incentives so immigrants come to and remain within Atlantic Canada. Therefore, several concrete steps need to be taken to retain immigrants in Atlantic Canada.

In particular, additional support is needed for those who come to Atlantic Canada via private sponsors. Canada’s private sponsorship program for refugees has attracted international praise for its ability to foster support and belonging, by having community members help refugees with matters like housing, language training, and accessing health and education services for a twelve month period. In fact, when the Syrian refugee crisis came on to the scene in Canadian news media in 2014-2015, ordinary people banded together to form private sponsorship groups from Cape Breton to St. John’s and beyond. Yet, come “Month 13”—the point when the sponsorship period ends—refugees can find themselves facing new risks as they strike out on their own. Since most established support organizations for immigrants and refugees tend to be concentrated in urban centres like Halifax, these organizations and local advocates and private sponsors must work to expand their services to more rural and isolated areas. One potential model is Nova Scotia Interpreting Services, which provides language interpretation over the telephone at hospitals, government departments, and other organizations serving the public throughout the Maritime provinces. Likewise, given that Atlantic Canada’s Resettlement Assistance Program communities—which provide services like job-seeking assistance and referrals to local resources—remain limited to a few locations (namely, Halifax, Moncton, Fredericton, St. John, Charlottetown, and St. John’s), the expansion of this program to other, more distant areas could encourage immigration—and retention—throughout the region, instead of being concentrated in a few isolated pockets.

Further, since Atlantic Canada’s economic stagnation may deter immigrants from staying in the area, policies are needed to ensure that newcomers in the region can start businesses, seek jobs, and pursue training and education. One particular issue in this vein involves credential transfers. The experience of Tareq Hadhad, a Syrian medical student who found himself facing substantial difficulties in obtaining recognition for his studies and appropriate training upon arriving in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, attests to this challenge. To set the stage for economic growth and development—and to prevent more prosperous areas from drawing immigrants away from Atlantic Canada—policymakers, universities, colleges, immigrant services and training centres, and professional accreditation bodies must work together to streamline the credential transfer process. They also need to make sure that immigrants to Atlantic Canada have the opportunity to complete recertification and training courses in a cost-efficient, affordable, and timely manner.

When it comes to Atlantic Canada’s current demographic trends, in the words of former AIMS President and CEO Charles Cirtwill, “the crunch is happening now, and we will continue to lose ground. We have to recognize that this will hurt our economy, our region, our future.” Immigration can help to mitigate the region’s projected population decline—and the resulting economic consequences. Nonetheless, it is clear that in order to not merely attract, but retain immigrants, substantial changes are needed. And given Atlantic Canada’s dire financial situation, these changes cannot come soon enough.

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