CARTWRIGHT -- When Alex and Nadia Tolmachev and daughter, Ekaterina, emigrated from Russia five years ago, they didn't know a soul in Manitoba but at least Alex had a job waiting, thanks to an immigration consultant.
Alex worked in Winkler for a few years, then moved west to the village of Cartwright, where he opened his own carpentry shop, and now has gained a reputation in restoring heritage buildings like the Christ Church Anglican (1898) in Cartwright, and the historic train station museum in Miami.
He's fortunate. That kind of immigration -- matching immigrants with jobs -- has virtually stopped in rural Manitoba the past two years, the unintended result of the provincial government's Bill 22.
Now the government is trying to correct the problem by supporting a pilot project.
The pilot project resulted when companies in the Pembina Valley told a recent survey they need at least 600 new employees within the next 12 to 18 months. Many businesses in the Winkler-Morden area have rebounded from the recession stronger than ever and, if they had more staff, could fill the void left by American companies that went out of business in the recession.
But they haven't been able to access foreign workers like before under Bill 22.
Bill 22, passed in 2009, changed the Worker Recruitment and Protection Act to protect immigrants from unscrupulous immigration consultants. Under the bill, consultants can no longer act as both immigration agents and job recruiters. There were too many cases of immigrants landing and not having the job promised them.
But Bill 22 made it too hard for many legitimate consultants to recruit immigrants for the labour market, to the point where most new immigrants to rural Manitoba are now arriving under the "family stream" of the provincial nominee program (PNP). Under the family class, landed immigrants sponsor a friend or close relative for immigration but not for the labour market. However, the PNP was designed primarily to match skilled foreign workers with provincial employment needs.
Winkler officials initiated talks with the province that resulted in the "strategic initiative." Under the program, the local economic development office will act like a recruiter by reviewing immigrant applications and identifying newcomers with skills that are in demand. The economic development officer for the City of Winkler and RM of Stanley will fill that function along with an industry committee. They have already begun reviewing immigrant applications on a weekly basis.
If successful, government hopes to roll the pilot project out across the province, said Ben Rempel, assistant deputy minister in the province's immigration office. Rempel said an imbalance of immigrants was starting to arrive under the PNP's "family stream."
He maintained the pilot project is part of "a learning experience" for communities trying to adapt to Bill 22.
How big an impact did Bill 22 have? To the west of Pembina Valley, in small-town Cartwright, people pulled off a minor miracle six years ago by drawing 140 immigrants to their small, little-known town near the Canada-U.S. border, including the Tolmachev family.
Penny Burton, the economic development officer for that area, said that immigration would not have taken place under Bill 22.
"The province now recognizes what has happened," said Irma Maier, an immigrant herself and owner of Compass Canada Immigration Services in Morden. Maier helped bring most of the newcomers into Cartwright.
In Winkler, about 10 families have already been approved under the new "strategic initiative."
"Our goal is to bring in 100 to 150 families" under the pilot project, said Darlis Collinge, the Winkler-Stanley economic development officer.