Since 2006, Ottawa has increased funding for immigrant settlement in Nova Scotia to $7.1 million from $2.1 million, and also boosted the number of skilled workers brought in under the provincial nominee program to 833 in 2009 from 326 in 2005.
"I think it’s admirable that Nova Scotia is focused on growing its population," said Immigration Minister Jason Kenney in an interview Wednesday. "Immigration is part of the solution to the challenge of shrinking population in general and in Atlantic Canada in particular."
But the province may not be able to continue increasing its intake of skilled immigrants as quickly as it would like. In 2009, 2,424 immigrants moved to Nova Scotia. The province would like to have 7,200 arrive every year by 2020. But in order for that to happen, Nova Scotia needs the federal government to lift the cap on the number who can arrive under the provincial nominee program, which is set at 500.
After a meeting in Pictou two weeks ago, the Atlantic premiers called on Ottawa to do more.
"As a first step, the Atlantic premiers call on the federal government to remove the cap on their provincial nominee programs," they said in a statement.
On Wednesday, Kenney said that may not be realistic.
"In general it’s a positive goal, but every province needs to remember we need to work together in the federation," he said. "We can’t have 10 provinces arbitrarily setting their own goals, because ultimately there’s one pipeline for immigration, if you will, and that runs through the government of Canada, through my ministry."
Ottawa plans to let 265,000 immigrants in next year, a number the government doesn’t want to increase. So if more go through provincial nominee programs, Ottawa would have to reduce the number of people who arrive under the much bigger federal economic-immigrant program, or cut back on refugees or family reunification, Kenney said.
He said he must balance competing interests.
"Ontario is pushing us for increases in the skilled worker program but Nova Scotia and other provinces are pushing us for increases in the nominee program.
"The refugee lobby is pushing for increases in the number of refugees. Many immigrants are pushing for increases in family class. And we just can’t meet everyone’s objectives at the same time."
NDP MP Megan Leslie, who represents Halifax, the riding where most immigrants to Nova Scotia settle, said the answer may be to raise the overall number.
"Provinces know what they need," she said. "If they say they need more skilled workers, we should be following their advice. Minister Kenney says it’s tricky. It is, but it’s not unsolvable."
Kings-Hants MP Scott Brison, a Liberal, said the federal government needs to respond to Nova Scotia’s demographic problems.
"The federal government needs to recognize the dire situation Nova Scotia is in with zero population growth, teetering on population decline," he said.
A poll released Wednesday by Abacus Data found that about 49 per cent of Canadians believe there are too many immigrants allowed in yearly. Only 42 per cent of Atlantic Canadians agreed, the lowest level in the country.
Kenney said there is no reason for anybody to oppose the provincial nominee program since it’s designed to provide immigrants to take jobs that are going unfilled by Canadians.
"My message would be that the provincial nominee program ensures that we’re not taking jobs away from Canadians or Nova Scotians."