By Ainslie Pierrynowski (AIMS on Campus Student Fellow)
In an earlier op-ed for AIMS On-Campus, I examined immigrant retention in Atlantic Canada. One key migration pattern which I left untouched, however, was the practice of temporarily hiring foreign nationals—who represent a rapidly expanding part of the Atlantic Canadian labour force. To provide some context, employers in Canada can recruit temporary foreign workers through several streams. The Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP), for instance, enables employers to hire workers from abroad to fill temporary labour and skill shortages for eight months or less. Typically, employers must complete a Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA) to affirm that no Canadian workers are available to fill the position in question.
Meanwhile, the International Mobility Program (IMP) allows employers to hire temporary foreign workers who are exempt from the LMIA, due to their eligibility for special pilot programs, economic agreements like NAFTA, and other reasons. In the case of Atlantic Canada, between 2005 and 2012, the number of temporary foreign workers in the region more than tripled. This increase stems, at least in part, from continued outmigration and an aging population, which have left many employers in rural and high-unemployment areas with limited hiring options.
These temporary foreign workers could be prime candidates for permanent settlement, being somewhat familiar with the region, its labour market, and immigration procedures. Given the region’s poor immigrant retention rates, members of Atlantic Canada’s growing contingent of temporary foreign workers who choose to reside here permanently could help to allay the region’s dismal demographic trends. Yet, for many temporary foreign workers in Atlantic Canada, the road to permanent immigration is beset with confusion, uncertainty, and barriers, like a lack of recognized professional credentials. In fact, a 2017 report from the House of Commons Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration urged Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada and the Atlantic provinces to facilitate workers’ transition from the TFWP to the Atlantic Immigration Pilot, a key path to permanent residency in the region.
To this end, I hold that an approach rooted in human capital is needed to bridge the gap between temporary foreign workers and the Atlantic Immigration Pilot Program. In particular, foreign workers in Atlantic Canada tend to be concentrated in low-skill, low-paying sectors like fish-processing. This trend could prove problematic for workers, since the Atlantic Immigration Pilot Program and other immigration processes based on economic needs target skilled workers and international graduates. Moreover, having a narrow range of skills and limited adaptability could compromise foreign workers’ ability to adjust to short- and long-term labour market changes as they attempt to make a life in Atlantic Canada. For these reasons, temporary foreign workers seeking permanent residency in Atlantic Canada need training programs aimed at developing professional communication skills, an understanding of the Canadian workplace, and other soft skills—similar to the skills development courses delivered by the Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia—and programs to facilitate workers’ entry into secondary or post-secondary education, perhaps modeled on the World University Service of Canada’s program for refugee students. Such an initiative could be sponsored by high-skill employers, local business organizations, or educational institutions, who would in turn benefit from foreign workers’ newfound skills. In short, while the growing number of temporary foreign workers in Atlantic Canada has drawn attention to the alleged shortcomings of the TFWP, this migration pattern also represents an opportunity for the region to combat current demographic trends. In the words of this 2009 AIMS study on Atlantic Canada’s declining population, “Well-informed policy decisions are those that take prospective demographic changes into account, rather than ignore them.” Indeed, as we consider proposed reforms to the TFWP and related programs, it is imperative that we consider how our decisions on the matter will shape Atlantic Canada’s fate in the years to come.