Ontario’s immigration strategy needs to change if communities outside of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) are going to find relief from economic and fiscal pressures, according to a report by the Conference Board of Canada.
Toronto and surrounding area welcomed 106,000 immigrants last year, while the rest of Ontario took in 31,000, according to Immigration Beyond the GTA: Toward an Ontario Immigration Strategy, a study seeking to identify solutions to attract and retain more immigrants in the 15 Ontario census metropolitan areas (CMAs) outside of the GTA. CMAs have total populations of at least 100,000 people — 50,000 of whom live in the city core.
Those immigration figures need to come closer together for Ontario to achieve maximum growth and future success, says Pedro Antunes, chief economist at the Conference Board in Ottawa.
“It’s not just growth for the sake of growth,” he says. “It’s growth because we really have a challenge with respect to what… we call dependency ratio. Because the baby boomer cohort is leaving the workforce, they’re no longer generating income and revenue for governments to tax. Instead, they’re moving into their most intense health-care years. This is a challenge — a demographic challenge for the country and for the province.”
“Across Ontario, we have an aging population, a low birthrate and — in some areas — high out-migration,” says Antunes. “A lot of municipalities have already been trying for a decade or more to be attractive to international immigrants.”
Many cities outside of the GTA are facing declines in population and labour force growth, affecting many areas, including service and programming levels, he says.
“As your services start to erode — it’s a vicious cycle — you can end up in a situation where… interregionally, people start leaving.”
Everybody versus Toronto
Ontario’s capital has had no trouble recruiting workers from abroad; immigrants total 45 per cent of Toronto’s total population, according to Antunes.
“When immigrants come to Canada, they choose the major centres because they know that they have contacts there, they have family there,” he says. “Most of the settlement services are there. So how do we turn this around?”
A broad-based strategy is needed with contributions from government, business groups and employers, says Antunes.
“We have three levels of government that certainly should have interest in trying to diversify and ensure that we have better regional growth.”
Compensatory incentives such as higher wages and housing assistance can be differentiators for employers in northern Ontario, says Neelima Bhardwaj, immigration consultant and president of Dreams Come True Immigration in Sudbury, Ont.
“It is hard,” she says. “But definitely the salary is higher. People make more money here, as compared to the GTA.”
“Somebody making $50,000 a year on average (in the GTA) will be making at least $70,000, $75,000 here — not for all jobs, but in general. And the houses are more affordable.”
The federal government’s Rural and Northern Immigration Pilot is expected to be up and running by year-end, with five northern Ontario communities slated to receive support via the new program, says Bhardwaj, who hopes it will be effective.
The program will give employers in North Bay, Thunder Bay, Timmins, Sault Ste. Marie and Sudbury — alongside a selection of out-of-province cities — the opportunity to directly select immigrants to hire, while giving foreign workers the chance to choose one of the 11 communities to make their permanent residence, streamlining the immigration process.
Meanwhile, retirement rates have increased substantially over the last five years, and will only continue to escalate, says Antunes.
“People think the baby boomers are in their 60s and already retired. But that's absolutely not true.”
The biggest portion of the cohort is set to retire over the next number of years, and employers need to inform themselves on how to recruit international immigrants to replace their workforce, says Antunes.
“[Immigrants] are willing to work. They've often come from difficult situations. They appreciate being in this country, and they’re devoted and hardworking if given an opportunity.”
Challenges include language barriers, cultural differences and the allure of living in major centres, he says.
But quality of life and shorter commute times are often better in smaller centres — areas of opportunity that employers outside of the GTA need to exploit when recruiting, says Antunes.
Employers may still be unfamiliar with the process and costs of hiring foreign workers, he says, and that’s another area where government may need to work to facilitate a better understanding.