Smaller cities attracting more immigrants

Mohanad Moetaz, Shelby Thevenot
Published: March 9, 2021

Toronto, Montreal, Calgary and Vancouver are popular destinations for immigrants coming to Canada. However, it is Canada’s small to mid-sized cities that are starting to attract more immigrants from abroad.

Over the same period between 2013 and 2019, the number of immigrants settling in smaller urban centres went up by 45 per cent between 2013 and 2019, compared to nine per cent in Canada's four major cities, according to a Ryerson University paper authored by David Campbell. In the same period, the number of new immigrants increased by 40 per cent in the rest of Canada’s Census Metropolitan Areas (CMAs).

CMAs are major urban centres that consist of multiple municipalities around a population centre. For example, the Toronto CMA consists of the city of Toronto, Mississauga, Brampton, Vaughan and Pickering.

The immigration rate, which is the number of immigrants per 10,000 residents, of these smaller to mid-sized urban centres is still lower than the larger cities. This may come as no surprise since the smaller urban centres started with a lower population.

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Toronto has one of the highest immigration rates in Canada at 163 per 10,000 residents. Vancouver is similarly impressive at 128 per 10,000 residents. But how do small and mid-sized urban centres fair?

The immigration rate was over 100 per 10,000 residents for a total of 14 smaller urban centres. Regina and Saskatoon in Saskatchewan both had immigration rates of 193 and 178 per 10,000 residents respectively, both higher than Toronto.

The remaining 12 smaller urban centres with high immigration rates were: Halifax, Charlottetown, Fredericton, Moncton, Swift Current, Winkler, Steinbach, Brandon, Thompson, Brooks, High River and Wood Buffalo. These smaller urban centres saw an influx of immigrants as a direct response to the challenges faced due to an aging population and workforce.

Many of these cities have a declining natural population. This means that there are more deaths than there are births. They depend on migration between provinces to stay competitive economically, so they have begun to attract more immigrants to continue growing.

The COVID-19 pandemic, however, played a big part in reducing the number of immigrants coming into small to mid-sized urban centres. This is due to the current travel restrictions in place to curb the spread of the virus.

Even though there exists some exemptions to the travel restrictions including some international students and temporary workers, those who have a Confirmation of Permanent Residence (COPR) approved after March 18, 2020, are still not allowed to travel to Canada.

Temporary foreign workers became heavily relied upon during the pandemic. Many of Canada’s export industries regularly hire short term international workers. Examples of these industries include agriculture and fish processing.

Canada will need to depend on immigration now more than ever to spearhead post-pandemic economic recovery. The country’s workforce increased by 1.95 million between 2009 and 2019— almost all came from immigrants. The table below illustrates this well. It shows the growth rate of the workforce by landed immigrants and by those who were born in Canada.

The provinces with the largest growth of immigrant workers also had the fastest growing economies.

A shrinking workforce is not the only challenge that comes with an aging population. Canada is facing an increasing demand for healthcare services as well as income support programs.

Campbell concluded the paper noting that the above-average unemployment rates and increasing number of COVID-19 cases could lessen some people’s support for immigration. However, for the long term, immigration will play a crucial role in the economic growth of major urban centres as well as small to mid-sized urban centres all over Canada.

Factors resulting in higher regional immigration

Regional immigration programs are mutually beneficial to immigrants and the local economy. Governments have identified gaps in the labour market that need to be filled by immigrants, in turn immigrants get to work in their field.

The Provincial Nominee Program (PNP) allows provinces to nominate immigration candidates who they think will be good fits for their labour market. These programs benefit less populous provinces, because they have more urgent needs for immigrants to support their economies. The prairie province of Manitoba was the first to sign up for the PNP in 1996, and was one of the first to start their program in 1999, along with New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador.

The launch of the Express Entry system in 2015 brought with it the first enhanced PNPs. Provincial government could search the Express Entry pool of candidates for people whose professional skills would benefit the labour market. The number of immigrants admitted through the PNPs rose from about 47,600 in 2014 to 68,600 in 2019.

Also, the Atlantic Immigration Pilot (AIP) was launched in March 2017. This pilot allows employers from Canada's four Atlantic provinces to expedite the hiring process for international employees. Through this program, immigrants come to Canada with a job and a settlement plan from a designated service provider. In 2019, 1,141 new immigrants came to the region. The most popular province for new immigrants was New Brunswick, followed by Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and Prince Edward Island. A recent government review found that the AIP was helping to improve retention in the region.

Finally, there has also been higher regional immigration simply because Canada has been increasing its immigration levels every year. Although the pandemic caused a significant drop in new immigrants in 2020, Canada still committed to welcoming more than 1.2 million immigrants over the next three years. Of these, the PNP is expected to bring in about 80,000 per year, and the AIP is expected to welcome about 6,000.

Also, Canada has yet to come out with the Municipal Nominee Program, which will allow communities, chambers of commerce and local labour councils to sponsor new immigrants. This new program is expected to bring in about 5,000 newcomers per year after it is launched.

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