STEINBACH, Manitoba — Lidia Tschritter comes to the door barefoot to meet her nine children as they return home from school. Her hair is tied in a kerchief and she wears a homemade flower-print dress that reaches her ankles just as she did in her native Mennonite village in Kazakhstan.
The front yard of her six-bedroom house has a trampoline for the children next to a sumptuous fruit and vegetable garden. Her husband, David, a carpenter who makes patio doors in a local window factory, will be home any minute to care for the family’s barn full of animals.
“Canada is wonderful!” exclaimed Mrs. Tschritter, 39, in her archaic German dialect. “We can buy everything we need, worship as we wish, and it’s nice and peaceful.”
This is the snapshot the Canadian government hopes to duplicate thousands of times over as it embarks on a new immigration policy designed to attract young, preferably large foreign families to rural Canada. The goal is to send one million immigrants into the hinterlands over the next decade by matching workers with remote businesses and farms that are starved for skilled labor, and to spread Canada’s multiethnic rainbow across the country’s vast prairies, tundras and forests.
Officials hope to remold an immigration policy that has turned Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal into three of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world to distribute the labor riches of places like China, India and Ethiopia more equally.
With Canada’s population of 30 million aging and its birthrate plummeting — Canadian women currently have 1.49 children on average — the government says that it, like some European countries, must rely on increasing immigration to ward off a population decline. But with the populations of Newfoundland falling by 7 percent between the 1996 and 2001 censuses, Yukon by 6.8 percent, Northwest Territories by 5.8 percent, New Brunswick by 1.2 percent and Saskatchewan by 1.1 percent, populations in some rural areas are already in calamitous decline.
“We need to create more magnets for immigration everywhere,” said the minister for citizenship and immigration, Denis Codere, in an interview. “It’s a matter of population growth, labor supply, quality of life, the very future of our country.”
Not only is the centuries-old dream of populating Canada’s vastness at stake. The solvency of national health care, and educational and housing programs that are financed by provincial tax bases, which are shrinking, may also hang in the balance. Enormous stretches in the prairies are suffering a slow death from cuts in farm subsidies, shrinking agricultural profit margins and drought. The decline of the farm economy has throttled businesses and propelled young people to take their skills and ambitions to large cities or to the United States.
Along the frigid Atlantic coast, a depletion of fish stocks has converted entire fishing communities into ghost towns.
Looking to immigration to meet its needs is not new for Canada. Few industrialized countries have so consistently used immigration as a tool for nation building. Canada populated its vast west in the 19th century by handing out land to European immigrants, much as its southern neighbor did. Today Canada’s per capita immigration rate is twice that of the United States, and about 17 percent of the population is foreign born.
Canadian authorities, noting negative demographic trends 25 years ago, opened Canada’s doors to people from the Caribbean, Asia and Africa. But the new arrivals cluster in a few cities — 53 percent of the 250,000 who arrive every year settle in Toronto,15 percent in Vancouver and 13 percent in Montreal.
Now, though, the earnings for new immigrants are declining in saturated labor markets, strains have been put on services and urban neighborhoods and schools are growing increasingly segregated. The imbalance also threatens to produce a balkanized Canada, with three metropolitan areas becoming increasingly distinct from the rest of the country.
“We just don’t know how a Toronto of the future, which is 60 percent nonwhite with 110 different ethnic groups and languages, is going to relate to the rest of Canada,” said Larry S. Bourne, a geography professor at the University of Toronto.
Manitoba played a leading role in changing immigration policy when it developed a successful program four years ago to attract several thousand skilled immigrants, using advertising and contacts with community leaders. It used communities already there to attract German-speaking Mennonites, Argentine Jews, Filipinos and Bosnians.
“For rural areas if we’re not in the process of growing, we’re in the process of dying,” said the Manitoba premier, Gary A. Doer, in an interview. “So what we need is a targeted immigration policy.”
Eight other provinces and territories have begun similar efforts to find skilled workers. Federal authorities then fast-track the provincial nominees through health and security checks.
New Brunswick, for instance, is looking for affluent students from China and Hong Kong, who local officials hope will coalesce into their own community and perhaps attract their families. Saskatchewan is looking to Korea and Ukraine to bring experienced farmhands to its hog barns. Mr. Codere has embraced the efforts and will unveil a new federal policy in mid-October that would grant thousands of immigrants three- to five-year work permits under the proviso that they live in rural communities.
If they comply, they will be automatically granted permanent resident status, with the right to apply for citizenship after another three years. By then, officials hope they will have planted roots in the small towns and will stay.
Mr. Codere will also propose ways to quicken retraining and licensing for foreign engineers, teachers and medical professionals seeking work in rural communities.
Skeptics say immigrants will continue to gravitate to cities and some question the constitutionality of limiting people’s freedom to move around. Furthermore, they say, not every province is able to build on ethnic populations already present the way Manitoba can.
But at Loewen Windows here in Steinbach, founded a century ago by the son of Russian Mennonites, the owners turned to Mennonites as they sought 150 new workers. Originally from Germany, the Mennonites have a 200-year history in Russia and Kazakhstan. Stalin resettled thousands of ethnic Germans from the Volga region to Kazakhstan after Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, and later they were encouraged to stay there for the same reason that Canada is seeking them as settlers today.
The newcomers here speak German, and little English, but communication is aided by the fact that many of their supervisors, older Mennonites, speak at least some German, learned from their grandparents.
The housing boom in the United States had propelled the company’s sales, and Loewen needed more skilled workers. “I could have put a plant in Georgia, Mexico, Malaysia or China,” said Charles Loewen, the chief executive officer, “but we prefer to grow here and immigration helped us hugely.”
In nearby Winnipeg, the 15,000-member Jewish population has helped attract Jews from economically depressed Argentina by sending delegations, helping with job interviews and English lessons and making sure prospective immigrants have a Friday night Sabbath dinner during exploratory visits.
The 35 Argentine families who have arrived over the last year have given the Jewish community here renewed confidence it can survive, and hundreds more have expressed interest in coming.
Martin Wayngenten, 30, an accountant, remembered when his rabbi in the city of Paraná took him aside and asked him to consider moving to Winnipeg. The rabbi suggested that he and his wife Agustina, 29, a biomedical engineer, would be welcomed with open arms.
“We took out a map and looked up Winnipeg,” Agustina Wayngenten recalled. Her husband chimed in, “When you don’t have a job, you don’t worry about the weather.”
They have found jobs, are saving for a house and are expecting their first baby. “I am going to speak to my child in Spanish,” Agustina said, smiling, “but he’ll be a Canadian.”