By Brian Lee Crowley
Halifax Chronicle Herald, Moncton Times and Transcript

SOCIETIES, like people, are not immortal. History is littered with societies that ceased to exist, often for reasons that remain obscure. And to survive, societies, again like people, must reproduce; they must renew themselves. The battle to renew a society’s population is nothing less than the will of that society to live.

There are two chief ways that we renew ourselves. One is through births, the other is through attracting newcomers. The two chief threats to our survival are deaths and people leaving. Death, alas, is largely out of our hands, and a newspaper column is hardly the place to discuss the intricacies of reproduction. But it can talk about both arrivals and departures from our society. So this is partly a discussion about immigration, but it is really about something much broader and more difficult.

The simple fact is that we, Atlantic Canadians, are struggling to renew our society. Too many of our children leave and we are unable to attract even a fraction of our share of immigrants to compensate. Atlantic Canadians are getting older and fewer in number. So what is it about us that we can neither keep our children nor attract newcomers, nor keep much more than a third of those who do come?

Newcomers have largely stopped coming here, at least from other countries. Immigration to Nova Scotia has dropped dramatically since the mid-1990s, while other provinces have become more aggressive in recruiting newcomers. In 2001, for example, we attracted a mere 1,708 immigrants out of a total of 250,000 who came to this country that year – less than one per cent of the total.

Lots of people feel that, while immigration is all very well and good for Toronto and Vancouver, it is quite inappropriate for us because of our unemployment. While they don’t put it this way, they really believe that opportunity is a zero-sum game, that if someone comes here and does well, it has been at the expense of someone else.

Indeed, it is true to say that there has been a very great deal of well-intentioned policy put in place here, based on the notion that the primary public policy problem facing the region is local unemployment, and that we needed to preserve old ways and old jobs, and keep them reserved for the locals as much as possible. Yet ironically, the policies that would attract immigrants are also precisely the policies that would increase opportunities for native-born Atlantic Canadians as well.

Consider that in our era of ever-freer international trade, trade grows significantly faster than the economy. It is also an era that rewards easily accessible communities with strong international networks. We can be all these things, with our port, airport, rail and international communications connections; but for far too long, we have been too inward-looking, and have failed to attract the immigrant population that has helped others to diversify their economy.

Take Houston. Since 1986, tonnage through its port has grown by one-third, helping the city recover the jobs lost during the “oil bust” of the early 1980s. Today, trade accounts for roughly 10 per cent of regional employment and has played a critical role in the region’s 1990s recovery.

As in Miami and Los Angeles, the city’s growing immigrant population has enhanced the expanding trade sector. Between 1985 and 1990, Houston, a traditional magnet for domestic migrants, suffered a net loss of over 140,000 native-born residents. But the immigrants kept coming – nearly 200,000 over the past decade, making that one of the seven largest immigrant destinations in the U.S.A. And those immigrants represent networks reaching back into their home countries, conduits through which capital, ideas, innovations, contacts and market opportunities flow.

But how do we get them to come, these precious immigrants over whom virtually the whole developed world is fighting? What we need is not an immigration policy. It is a prosperity policy. Doing what is right for Atlantic Canadians will also be the right thing for attracting immigrants, including a reduced tax burden; a culture of education; a lightening of the regulatory burden, including on newcomers’ access to many regulated professions. All these would be powerful recruitment tools because they would open opportunities for those with the energy and the commitment to pursue them. Attracting highly skilled professionals and entrepreneurs from elsewhere also helps to fill skills gaps, while generating economic activity that can help employ workers currently unemployed or underemployed.

Just to get a reasonable share of the immigrants who are so vital for our future will require us not merely to negotiate the right intergovernmental agreements. It will mean recognizing that, first and foremost, immigrants seek opportunity and freedom. The renewal of our society can only occur when we create that climate of opportunity that attracts our own children as well as newcomers.

Brian Lee Crowley is president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a public policy think tank in Halifax. E-mail: [email protected]