What Does Report on Atlantic Canadian Immigration Say About Cape Breton?

The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration (CIMM) has digested months of hearings, testimony from 55 witnesses and briefs from 11 individuals or organizations into a final report on Atlantic Canadian immigration.

The report itself has 24 recommendations but there is also a “dissenting opinion” from the Conservative members of the committee (Michelle Rempel, Bob Saroya and Larry Maguire) with nine recommendations and a “supplementary opinion” from the New Democrat member (Jenny Kwan) with another 12. Clearly, there are too many recommendations for me to deal with in one article (and you can read it all for yourselves) so I’ve decided to focus on those recommendations in the main report that seem relevant to Cape Breton.

(I will admit, I was assisted in this decision by a quick scan of the Conservative’s “dissenting” report, which relies a little too heavily on the testimony of Kevin Lacey of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation — an organization I wrote about here — for my taste and suggests the government could improve immigration recruitment and retention rates in Atlantic Canada by, among other things, “reversing the carbon tax.”)


Alaina Lockhart

Alaina Lockhart

Alaina Lockhart

Before I get to the report, though, I’d like to share my conversation with Alaina Lockhart, the MP for Fundy Royal, NB, whose private member’s motion (M-39) launched the CIMM’s study. I spoke to her by phone last week and asked why she’d decided to ask the committee to look into immigration to Atlantic Canada:

The people of Fundy Royal weren’t necessarily coming to me and asking for more immigration, but they were talking about the symptoms of an ageing and shrinking population — and that was everything from viability of schools in local areas, to the importance of shopping local, to employers that were looking to grow but had concerns about…being able to find workers to do the work they needed done.

In my area in particular, it’s an agriculture area and it’s quite often difficult to find people to work on farms. So, because of those conversations and because I had the opportunity to present a private member’s motion, I decided that I would focus on looking at immigration as a means for growth for Atlantic Canada.

Lockhart’s motion actually pre-dated the establishment of the Atlantic Immigration Pilot (AIP), a federal government program that, among other things, requires employers to provide “settlement plans” for immigrants they hire, but she said she accepted a friendly amendment to include a review of the AIP in the committee’s mandate.

Lockhart said many of the problems facing Atlantic Canada in terms of recruiting and  retaining immigrants are faced by rural communities across the country, it’s just more acute here because we have a larger proportion of our population in rural communities. Interestingly, she said there’s nothing specific to Atlantic Canada — or even to rural communities — about the outflow of young people:

[Y]es, we have had an outflow of youth, over the years, but if you take a look at some of the metropolitan areas, they too have the same type of movement of the population.

Where we have really fallen behind in Atlantic Canada is what I…term the back-filling, we’re just not attracting as many newcomers to the area as they are in some of the metropolises.

How we attract — and then retain — newcomers was the subject of much discussion and debate over the course of the committee’s hearings, which began in May and wrapped up in October. I asked Lockhart if she’d heard anything encouraging over that time and she said:

I think a lot of work has been done by the provinces to identify where the gaps are in the workforce. One of the things that concerns people, they don’t want jobs that could be filled by locals filled by someone else, but many employers have identified long-term shortages in the workforce that can be addressed by immigration as well.

Finally, Lockhart warned that the real drive to improve immigration to the Atlantic provinces is not going to come from the federal government:

[I]mmigration and increasing the retention rates of immigration to Atlantic Canada aren’t going to be based on a federal government program. There are levers and processes and…supports that the federal government can lend; however, a lot of this needs to be employer driven and community driven. And to me, that’s key in retention. We can’t just look at immigration as a commodity, we’re talking about families that we want to settle in our communities, and that’s the approach I find…exciting…, a way to think outside of the box and make sure we are retaining people who choose to come to Atlantic Canada.

Bearing that in mind, l scoured the report for references to Cape Breton and here’s what I found.


Part I: Understanding the Challenges in Atlantic Canada

In Section A (An ageing population and a shrinking labour force”), CBRM Councilor Amanda McDougall is quoted as providing a “particularly striking example” of the effects of an ageing and declining population on tax revenues:

She explained how the declining population challenge faced by her municipality influences the municipality’s revenue streams. She emphasized that 1,500 people leave Cape Breton Island each year, which means a $19 million loss in consumer spending, not to mention taxable income. According to her, this demographic challenge will only increase in the coming years because, out of the 2,005 immigrants that chose Nova Scotia in 2015, only 92 people settled in Cape Breton Island. She was also concerned that other rural regions in Nova Scotia welcomed among them a shared number of 10 people that same year. For her, immigration is essential to get “more people in the area to contribute to [the] tax bases” because immigration is connected to economic development.

A little further on, Heather Coulombe of the Farmer’s Daughter Country Market in Whycocomagh “confirmed that there are schools and businesses that closed near her, mostly in rural areas.”

Other witnesses from other places in Atlantic Canada were also permitted to speak, and they outlined our demographic challenges and the low numbers of newcomers we attract. And here I must abandon my Cape Breton-centric approach to this report for a moment and quote some interesting numbers: immigrants account for 21.9% of the Canadian population but only 6.1% of Nova Scotia’s population, 4.6% of New Brunswick’s population, 6.4% of PEI’s population and 2.4% of Newfoundland and Labrador’s population.

And although the most recent census data shows that in 2016 each of the Atlantic Provinces received its largest ever number of new immigrants, the report concludes:

Nevertheless, in 2016, Atlantic Canada had an overall share of national immigration of 4.6%, whereas the share for Quebec was 18%, Ontario was 37% and Western Canada was 40%. Witnesses emphasized that Atlantic Canada is not getting its “fair share” of immigration and without a larger base it “can’t get the critical mass to attract more immigrants.”

When retention rates of immigrants to Atlantic Canada (and perhaps any rural area of Canada) are factored in, the net benefit to Atlantic Canada is much less than the benefit enjoyed by the country as a whole, especially in urban areas. To be equitable and to address the current crisis, the immigration target for Atlantic Canada should take retention into account.

I’d like to think the report’s use of the word “crisis” indicates something might be done soon, but sadly, government progress in addressing other crises — like our wait times for mental health treatment in Cape Breton — suggest I shouldn’t get my hopes up. The discussion did, however, lead to the committee’s first two recommendations:

Recommendation 1

In light of the challenges in retention, that Immigration Refugees and Citizenship Canada work in collaboration with provincial governments to increase the share of newcomers to the Atlantic Provinces and to adequately fund the infrastructure needs and support services for the immigrant community in Atlantic Canada.

Recommendation 2

That Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada work with the Atlantic Provinces to ensure adequate provision of settlement services to attract and retain newcomers to these areas.

In a discussion of labor shortages in various sectors, Adam Mugridge of Louisbourg Seafoods told the committee the average age of workers in that company’s processing plants is 58.

Recommendation 3:

That the Government of Canada, in collaboration with Atlantic Provinces and stakeholders, consider predicted labour shortages in all skill levels when planning and delivering their immigration related policies and programs.


In Section B (“Public and private initiatives for immigration”), Mugridge is quoted telling the committee that temporary foreign workers (TFWs) make up one third of Louisbourg Seafood’s workforce which, in peak season,  touches 500 employees. He added that the company was “trying to develop new seafood products that would translate into full-time jobs for these workers.”

Then Kevin Lacey and Jordi Morgan of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business go head to head in a single paragraph, Lacey saying TFWs are “hired to respond to labour shortages although there are high unemployment rates in the region, a situation that keeps wages down.” Morgan explaining that “employers sought TFWs at great cost, but access to the program had assisted them to expand their businesses and to continue to employ Canadian workers.”

The committee noted that many witnesses (although not, I’m guessing, Kevin Lacey) had argued “the desirability of creating a pathway to permanent residence for temporary foreign workers, however, the only specific model proposed seemed unfeasible given the current design of Provincial Nominee Programs.”

Recommendation 13

That Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada work with the provinces to streamline their processes to facilitate the transition from the Temporary Foreign Worker Program to the Atlantic Immigration Pilot Program to become permanent residents.

I know I was going to stick to the main report, but I have to include what the Conservatives and the NDP had to say about the TFW program because their views are almost cartoonishly opposed, like the Betty and Veronica of recommendations. In their “dissenting” opinion, the Conservatives recommended:

7. That the government reform the Temporary Foreign Worker Program to adequately address the issues identified by the Auditor General’s Report in 2017:

a) That these reforms include measures that necessitate the use of government data on labour markets to corroborate the validity of an employer’s application.

b) That these reforms include increased measures to ensures [sic] all options within the domestic workforce have been exhausted prior to seeking temporary foreign workers.

c) That the government study the possible depression of wages caused by the TFWP

8. That IRCC examine whether industries in the Atlantic region have created a business model based off of the TFWP and investigate possible mechanisms to stop such actions.

In its “supplementary opinion,” the NDP recommended the government:

Ensure that Canada’s immigration policy reflect the principle that if you are good enough to work, you are good enough to stay — by shifting immigration policy away from a reliance on temporary streams and towards permanent resident streams.


Time for a reading break: here’s an easy-to-grasp visual representation of Atlantic Canada’s population growth (or lack thereof) based on 2016 Census data:

Figure 1 - Population Growth in Atlantic Canada by Census Divisions (CDs) from 2011 to 2016

Click to enlarge.

I’ve just thought of a purely aesthetic argument for increased immigration: if we don’t increase our population, we may have to redesign the Cape Breton tartan. Instead of green for our hills and yellow for our sunshine and black for our coal (I worked a couple of summers at the tourist bureau, have I mentioned that before?) we’ll have orange for our declining population and grey for our sparsely populated census districts. That’ll be pretty.


Part 2Bringing Immigrants to Atlantic Canada

Under the heading “International students,” McDougall is quoted as saying that “the lack of front-line immigration services was a major deterrent in keeping international students on Cape Breton Island.”

The committee also heard that the government of Newfoundland and Labrador has “identified international students as a source of potential immigrants and has designated a staff person at the Office of Immigration and Multiculturalism to assist students with labour market and immigration advice.”

That discussion led to this recommendation:

Recommendation 11

That Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, allow international students in the Atlantic Immigration Pilot Program and those who have been recruited by a designated employer under the Atlantic Immigration Pilot Program to access settlement services once they have started the permanent residency application process.

I’m not sure how different this is from the existing situation — my discussions with McDougall and Erika Shea of New Dawn (which provides settlement services) suggest that such services should be available to international students from the moment they arrive in the country, rather than once they’ve begun the permanent residency (PR) application process.


Source: Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration. (Click to enlarge)

Source: Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration. (Click to enlarge)


Part 3: Attracting and Integrating Newcomers to Atlantic Canada

Under the heading “Create awareness abroad of Atlantic Canada as a place to call home,” Coulombe is quoted again, this time at greater length, first saying that one of the employees at the Farmer’s Daughter, a woman from the Philippines, had “previously worked in various cities across Canada” but in settling in rural Cape Breton had finally found ” a sense of belonging.” Coulombe then described her experiment in recruitment via social media:

Providing one personal example of a promotional campaign that had worked, Ms. Coulombe came up with a novel idea that generated 300,000 emails from around the world to work for her family-owned business. She posted an advertisement on social media explaining the reality of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia; its beauty, its rural environment, low wages, hard winters and limited Internet capabilities. She offered two acres of land to those who would work five years for her business. She told the Committee that her labour needs were driven by tourism from summer through to December, and while it was easy to hire up to 50 students in the summer, staffing the rest of the year was difficult. In hiring, her major concern was the “right fit”: people desiring a sustainable rural lifestyle who are community-minded. She told the Committee that her advertisement had inspired three families to come and start their own businesses, as well as interest in the region from international businesses in the tourism sector from England, South Africa and Sweden.

What is hopeful about this story, to me, is that the people who answered Coulombe’s advertisement knew the land she was offering was in a rural area, that it was not well served by public transit and that there could be problems with broadband internet. In fact, the land on offer was completely unserviced, off the grid, and still people responded. This is hopeful because elsewhere the report states rather bleakly:

Witnesses remarked that immigration is difficult for recent immigrants in rural areas in Atlantic Canada because there is a lack of social infrastructure, such as high-quality and high-speed internet and public transit. As one witness concluded, “[t]he Atlantic Provinces are urbanizing, and immigration on its own will not solve the challenges of rural areas and small towns in these provinces.”

But what if it’s a case of attempting to attract the wrong kind of person? What about people who live in urban environments and want out?

The discussion resulted in the following recommendation:

Recommendation 17

That Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada work with Innovation, Science and Economic Development and Global Affairs Canada to finance a recruitment campaign to attract immigration to the Atlantic Provinces and evaluate on a regular basis if the campaign is successful.

Really, it couldn’t hurt — and if it were properly constructed and targeted, it might even work.


Part 3, Section B (“Working together to integrate newcomers in Atlantic Canada), includes a discussion of “settlement services and integration support,” in which the report notes McDougall’s concern that “immigration services and supports tend to stay in the provincial capitals, which negatively affects regions further out in the province.”

The report then turns to Dalhousie’s Howard Ramos of the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology who argues that “settlement service providers in the ‘hub’ urban centres are very successful by offering a full complement of services and could support smaller communities.”

But the committee gives the last word to McDougall, who said Ramos’ vision is “not a reality for a community such as Sydney, Nova Scotia, that is approximately five and a half hours from Halifax, which is where settlement services are located.”

Ms. McDougall did note that the province does provide settlement services on Cape Breton Island, but that it was restricted to permanent residents. Therefore, international students cannot access settlement services on Cape Breton Island and, if they are no longer enrolled at the university, they have to seek help in Halifax.

The result of such considerations?

Recommendation 18

That Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada work in partnership with its provincial counterparts, municipal partners, settlement service providers, multi-ethnic organizations, employers and other stakeholders to develop and implement a coordinated settlement strategy for Atlantic Canada.

That is so vague I’m not sure if it actually addresses the problem, but it does show that the committee understands that settlement services are available on the island for those who have applied for their permanent residency. I’m just not sure if anywhere in here is the possibility that services could be extended to international students who’ve yet to begin that process.


Source: Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration. (Click to enlarge)

Source: Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration. (Click to enlarge)



I asked Councilor McDougall what she thought about the committee’s recommendations and she told me, in an email, that while she was happy to see the testimony of witnesses quoted throughout the report and welcomed the list of recommendations — particularly “the emphasis placed on making this type of program more accessible to international students and also ensuring that immigration is better supported throughout the provinces” — she nevertheless had a couple of concerns:

I would have liked to see a recommendation that clearly identified the power of insight and direction that needs to come from regions, not the Provinces, about what streams of immigration are needed and able to be supported in communities across the Atlantic Region. Although it was promising to see an emphasis to better provide settlement services and funding programs for immigration, the recommendations did not specify that this type of funding needs to be more fairly allocated across provinces, rather than concentrated in urban areas (like in Nova Scotia’s case the bulk of the funding stays and services only those handy to Halifax). The fact that International Students were included in the recommendations was also a huge step forward, but there is a lot of work to go before the Atlantic Immigration Pilot sees positive immigration streams flowing to all communities in the Atlantic Provinces.

I also asked New Dawn’s Erika Shea what she made of the report and if it addressed any of the issues her organization has raised around immigration. Shea pointed to Recommendation 16:

That Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada and Employment and Social Development Canada adapt current programs to make room for candidates with job skills classified as National Occupational Classification C or D to address the needs of Atlantic Canada including sectors such as agriculture, construction, fisheries, hospitality and transportation.

Shea suggested it speaks to the actual needs of businesses in the region in a way the Atlantic Immigration Pilot, which, she said, is often “held up as the solution to all of our problems,” does not.

We hear often from people in the tourism, agriculture and fisheries industries who have positions they can’t fill and/or who need to hire a significant number of people if they are to begin or sustain their growth.

The AIP will only facilitate the immigration of candidates for positions that are a continuous 52 weeks in duration. This doesn’t reflect the needs of many here right now. Opening up the AIP or other streams to facilitate the immigration and permanent residency of those in  these seasonal industries is a win-win. It would represent a new pathway for people into Cape Breton and would respond to the needs of employers in these sectors.

That said, Shea worried that the committee’s recommendations seemed predicated on the notion of the Atlantic provinces as a homogeneous region:

They don’t address the often painful reality that across the Atlantic provinces, capital regions are growing and the non-capital regions are shrinking. Is this unavoidable? Natural? Is making our inevitable death as painless as possible the best we can expect at this point? We would contend no. Just as inequity in immigration levels among regions is a reflection of long-standing policies, systems and investments, so too can it be undone in this way. If however, policies at both the federal and provincial level don’t begin to intentionally and consistently undo the immigration disparities in Nova Scotia between Halifax and everyone else, we will still be here in 20 years, saying the same thing, but to an audience of far fewer people.


Over to you…

Part of me wants to apologize for not doing a better job of capturing all the information contained in this report (and the “dissenting” and “supplementary” opinions), but that’s just crazy talk. The report covers a lot of ground and any article (at least, any article that can be read inside of a single day) can only hope to touch on some of the highlights. Besides, you folks are all literate, you can read the report for yourselves. Have at it:







The Cape Breton Spectator is entirely reader supported. Please consider subscribing today!