Atlantic Canada needs control of its own immigration policy.
by Don Cayo


In a move scarcely noticed in splendidly isolationist Atlantic Canada, the New Brunswick government took a small but sensible step toward openness a couple of months ago. It signed a pact with Ottawa that gives it, at long last, a modicum of control over its immigration policy.

The deal was, unfortunately, second-best. A much better option would have been to negotiate a broader package giving similar, or greater, powers to the four Atlantic Provinces acting in concert. But, as New Brunswick Labour Minister Joan Kingston told me when we discussed her approach a few months before the deal was done, she wasn’t prepared to wait forever for the other three provinces to come on board. She felt the need to act now.

In this era of collapsing Atlantic co-operation – provinces threatening to sue each other over toll roads, fighting over who gets to develop the offshore or who gets to process the fish, undermining the perfectly functional Atlantic Lottery Corp., and all that kind of stuff – she’s right. Waiting for Premiers Binns, MacLellan and Tobin to sign onto this plan would be like waiting for Godot.

And Ms. Kingston won an important battle when she got her Cabinet colleagues – many of them who rarely show sign of being any more far-sighted than their counterparts to the East – to agree.

The nub of the deal is to give New Brunswick the power to nominate 200 would-be immigrants a year from now to 2003, the year the agreement expires. Two hundred doesn’t sound like many – and it isn’t. But the number surpasses its apparent significance for three reasons.

First, the 200 can – and many will – bring family members with them. So the potential boost to New Brunswick’s population could total 400 or 500 a year.

Second, New Brunswick will get to choose people with the skills – including an entrepreneurial bent, perhaps backed up with some capital – that it most urgently needs.

And third, provincial nominations will tend to go to people who have a particular reason for wanting to be in New Brunswick, not merely somewhere in Canada. Or not merely anywhere but the country where they were born.

This last point is significant given the lousy record of New Brunswick – and its sister Atlantic Provinces – not only in attracting immigrants to come here, but also in enticing them to stay beyond a year or two. This region gets but a tiny share of its fair proportion of people who come to Canada – Nova Scotia gets about 40 per cent, Prince Edward Island 20 per cent, Newfoundland 15 per cent, and New Brunswick a miserable 11 per cent. But far worse – and here the evidence is more anecdotal than statistical – most of them are gone, usually to Ontario, after a few short months or years in Atlantic Canada.

But every year each of our provinces has a lot of foreign visitors, some of them long-term on work or study permits, who find powerful reasons for wanting to stay. Some fall in love. Some get a home in the ’burbs and kids in school and figure out what a great place this is. Some see a business opportunity that all the locals have missed.

As things used to stand in New Brunswick – and as they still do elsewhere in the region – these people had to go through hoops to hope to stay. They’d have to leave the country and apply to come back, and satisfy a host of other red-tape requirements. Now, in New Brunswick at least, if these people meet basic Canadian immigration criteria – mainly no contagious diseases and no criminal past – they’re in. With luck, in to stay.

New Brunswick, of course, can also do some badly needed recruiting now, although I sadly note that this would be far more effective – and cost-effective – if it were done regionally.

The focus of this new made-in-New Brunswick policy is, of course, on what are deemed to be “desirable” immigrants. It targets those with needed skills and/or money to invest. Personally, I think we could broaden the net. The CVs of Guatemalans like the Vasquez family who won freedom by camping out in a church basement, or the equally tenacious Greys, look a lot more like most of our ancestors – certainly mine – than those who have bank books in their pockets and diplomas on the wall.

Nevertheless, Canada has its share of folks – perhaps a few Atlantic premiers and their cabinet colleagues among them – who see immigrants as a potential drain on, rather than a boon to their economies. I think they’re seriously misreading both history and modern-day economics. It’s the places that get the people — and it doesn’t matter much what their background is or where they come from — that really move ahead.

So to Ms. Kingston and to her New Brunswick cabinet colleagues who backed her, I propose a toast. Cheers! Salud! Skol! Proost! Yeghes da! Prosit! Slainte! Mazaltov! Heghle’neH QaQ jajvam! Etc., etc., etc.