Former New Brunswick premier Frank McKenna has an idea for revitalizing Atlantic Canada: make new immigrants live there. According to the Canadian Press, Mr. McKenna is suggesting the federal government create a program requiring newcomers to the country to spend three to five years in one or more of the Atlantic provinces before the individuals may become Canadian citizens. The more immigrants making lives in provinces such as New Brunswick, the thinking goes, the stronger the economy and the entrepreneurial spirit of these provinces will be.
Mr. McKenna is right in part. By boosting its population with immigrants, the Atlantic region would be taking a strong step toward reversing its disturbing economic and demographic trends.
Unfortunately, while taking in more immigrants may be a necessary step to this end, it is not a sufficient one — and it’s very likely the other steps have to come first to make success feasible. It should go without saying that even the strongest entrepreneurial spirit will crushed by economic protectionism and excessive regulation.
But what do we see in New Brunswick, for example? That province imposes strict interprovincial import limits on beer and wine to try to force its citizens to buy their alcohol in provincial stores, where prices generally run double what they are in neighbouring Quebec. The instinct is to restrict trade and coerce consumers, rather than to foster new New Brunswick businesses through open trade and to entice consumers with better options. In a nutshell, this is what Mr. McKenna is suggesting be done with immigrants as well: restrict their geographical options and compel them to live in Atlantic Canada, rather than have each Canadian region compete freely for the immigrants’ voluntary residency with enticing features such as less red tape and paperwork to start a business.
New immigrants may not have a constitutional right to move around the country the way Canadian citizens do. But forcing them to stay in a struggling region that hasn’t addressed its problems will only ensure that they will flee to another part of the country as soon as they are legally able to do so.
It’s like relying on the inverse of the popular Shoeless Joe adage “if you build it, they will come” — the Atlantic provinces seem to think of immigrants and a flourishing region that “if they come, we will build it.”
Mr. McKenna and the current provincial leaders in Atlantic Canada have it backwards. They have to clear away the significant regulatory obstacles to economic progress first, then they can look outside the country for people eager to take advantage. But if, for example, New Brunswick remains a province where the public service is so big that it threatens to dominate the job market, coercing immigrants to stay there for a few difficult years will have no positive effects.
The important thing to remember is that an immigrant with the drive to work hard — the sort of immigrant Mr. McKenna is right to venerate — needs the room to benefit from that hard work, if not himself, then through his kids who will have better options than he did. He doesn’t need to be coddled or babied. Just the opposite: government has to clear the way enough for him to be able to make a living through his voluntary sweat and effort. If it doesn’t, he can’t bring the benefits the Atlantic provinces are seeking.
I’m not making the case that immigrants are carefully studying the relative regulatory burdens when they choose where to live. The comfort and security of being around other people from the same homeland and with the same language are also important factors. But ultimately the choice immigrants make depends on their confidence in being free to support themselves and their families — stories and emails with anecdotes about which provinces make that most likely will spread quickly, even if statistics don’t.
We can’t expect hard-working immigrants to drive job creation unless they’re given the liberty to choose how and where they will do that hard work to make a better life for themselves.
Marni Soupcoff is executive director of the Canadian Constitution Foundation