Saskatoon-bound: Newcomers leading westward shift

Wednesday, December 21, 2011 – Globe and Mail

When Bangladeshi-born Sayful Ahmed decided to come to Canada for a fresh start, he didn’t head to Vancouver, Toronto or Montreal.

He chose Saskatoon.

The city of 234,000 people, which has garnered a reputation for seeking newcomers and having plenty of work, was just too appealing to pass up.

“My friends live here, they said it’s a good place – for living, for job opportunities. …That’s why I chose Saskatoon,” said Mr. Ahmed, who arrived three weeks ago. “So far, so good.”

The booming Prairie province has become a magnet for migrants – from the Philippines, Ukraine, China, India and England.

In fact, Saskatchewan and Alberta lead the country in population growth, according to numbers from Statistics Canada released Tuesday. International migration to Saskatchewan over the third quarter of 2011 was the highest it has been for any quarter since 1971.

At the same time, Ontario – traditionally the country’s strongest draw for newcomers – recorded its smallest net international migration for this quarter since 1998.

Economic gloom translates into fewer migrants; fewer migrants means fewer employable bodies – and, in turn, less settlement cash from Ottawa.

As Canada’s centre of gravity shifts westward with growing economic prosperity and political clout, the population is following. That goes both for international and internal migration: Western provinces are luring job seekers from Taizhou and Toronto alike.

“Settlement patterns in contemporary Canada are changing. Western Canada is increasingly vibrant economically and Saskatchewan, we think, is helping to drive that kind of shift,” Immigration Minister Rob Norris said. “It’s allowing us to fuel our economic growth. … We’re seeing community renewal under way and we’re also seeing economic benefits.”

The population shift also reflects a change in the way Canada seeks newcomers: Emphasis is moving away from the skilled worker “points system,” which has become known for bringing in surgeons and engineers who often find themselves jobless or underemployed. Instead, Canada’s Western provinces rely increasingly on a nominee program that lets them hand-pick the immigrants their economies need most.

Job seekers from within Canada need no such encouragement. Many are seeking greener economic pastures – both native-born Canadians and immigrants “re-migrating” elsewhere.

“All the Bengalis I meet here,” said Mr. Ahmed in Saskatoon, “they either come from Toronto or Montreal.”

Alberta continues to lead the country in Canadians transplanted from other provinces. And it has Ontario to thank for a third of its interprovincial migration in the third quarter of 2011.

Ontario unemployment, higher than the national average, hits immigrants disproportionately. According to a 2010 Board of Trade report, recent Toronto immigrants make less now, compared to their Canadian counterparts, than they did in 1980. The failure to tap their skills is estimated to cost the economy billions.

The shift hasn’t gone unnoticed by the federal government. This year, Ottawa shifted its immigrant-settlement resources: Ontario services lost out, to the benefit of some of their Western counterparts.

Saskatoon’s Open Door Society saw its budget increase 28 per cent last year, to $5.3-million. And the group needs it, settlement and family support manager Anahit Falihi said. Its staff has tripled in five years to accommodate the flood of newcomers needing a hand.

While he’s hesitant to prognosticate, University of Western Ontario professor Roderic Beaujot said there’s reason to believe these trends are more than just a blip.

“We’re seeing important changes in the pattern of interprovincial migration and the settlement of international migrants across the country,” he said. “I think there’s some staying power here.”

As much as they’re contributing economically, the newcomers are also changing the flavour of the Prairies. Thirty per cent of Saskatchewan’s immigrants are settling in hundreds of small communities, Mr. Norris says. That mirrors migration trends in the American Plains states, where last year’s census showed fading towns rejuvenated by an injection of Hispanic migrants.

Mr. Ahmed, for his part, hopes to save up enough for his own restaurant – “somewhere people can go and experience proper Indian food.”

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