Chinese immigrants transforming P.E.I.’s cultural landscape

  Jul 3, 2011 – 8:00 AM ET Last Updated: Jul 2, 2011 10:58 AM ET
When a Chinese immigrant visits Brown’s Volkswagen in Charlottetown, general manager Skip Rudderham is prepared: He has interpreters on speed-dial and bilingual business cards. Prince Edward Island, with its reputation of homogeneity and conservatism, may not seem the likeliest province to require such measures, but require them it does: Chinese immigration is transforming the island both culturally and economically.
“We would quite literally hire every qualified [Chinese] person we could get our hands on,” said Mr. Rudderham. “Our Chinese clientele is large enough that we could keep this person busy basically dealing with that clientele alone.”
The Brown’s Volkswagen experience is echoed elsewhere on P.E.I. — a small province once notorious for its “strong cultural norm of sameness” and better known as the rural home of the white, carrot-haired Anne of Green Gables.
When Kate Middleton, who reportedly adores the Lucy Maud Montgomery series, descends upon the province for “something of a sentimental journey” during her Royal visit to Canada this weekend, she will see a remarkably different P.E.I. than the one she has read about.
“You go through some of our schools now, and I joke that you think you’re in downtown Toronto,” said Premier Robert Ghiz, the son of Lebanese-Canadian Joe Ghiz, himself Canada’s first non-European premier. “You’re seeing cultural diversity in our hallways.”
Since the province started recruiting skilled and affluent immigrants through its Provincial Nominee Program in 2001, upward of 10,000 newcomers have called P.E.I. home. But while the province of just 143,200 is undergoing a metamorphosis at the behest of immigration generally, it is immigration from a land of nearly 1,337,000,000 in particular that is driving the novel shift.
China has been the chief source of immigration to P.E.I. for the past five years, with nearly 2,400 newcomers arriving between 2006 and 2009 alone, according to the province’s Population Secretariat. Most of those newcomers at least initially settled in Charlottetown, where the population was just 32,000 at the time of the census in 2006.
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There is some discomfort — “I think there are mixed feelings on the island; some people are welcoming, but the older generation is maybe a bit less so,” long-time Charlottetown resident Florence McInnis says — but most community leaders say Islanders have adjusted. There has been no spike in race-based complaints to the province’s human rights commission, and the head of the Prince Edward Island Association for Newcomers struggled to recall any clashes between clients and Islanders.
“The acceptance has been remarkably smooth,” said Craig Mackie, executive director of the association. “People get it — they get that we need immigrants, that the Boomers are getting old and retiring and we need new people in here with new skills.”
That fact has not been lost on the government, which is looking to counter a natural-population-growth rate that has shrunk to almost zero. Provincial spending on resettlement programs doubled to more than $4.2-million between 2008 and 2009, and it has paid off: P.E.I’s population rose by nearly 400 in the first quarter of this year, making it the only Atlantic Canada province to see an increase.
Provincial education officials have established an intake team to assess students’ language proficiency before registering them at the appropriate grade level. The team, which also contracts tutors to teach the children, got so busy after it was struck in 2007 that the staff grew from six to 29 people in just three years.
The influx has meant adjustments elsewhere, too. The Bank of Montreal last year added Mandarin to its automatic teller machines in Charlottetown, and a spokesperson said the bank has seen “dramatic growth” in its Chinese clientele since hiring two Chinese employees in May 2010. A realtor who saw a surge in Chinese clients launched the province’s first English-Mandarin newspaper last month, and Charlottetown recently gleaned its first Asian tea house.
“People think we’re a little old-fashioned — we’re the birthplace of Confederation, we’re still fishing and farming, we’re the last province to bring in Sunday shopping,” Mr. Ghiz said. “But I say the opposite.”
In March, the city hosted its inaugural Chinese Islanders Business Summit, which was co-sponsored by Brown’s Volkswagen and attracted more than 250 Chinese immigrants eager to invest in island companies.
“The only way to make [these Chinese immigrants] stay in the province is to show them the business opportunities here,” said summit host and entrepreneur Frank Zhou, 32, who immigrated to P.E.I. from Beijing through the federal-provincial nominee program seven years ago.
Like thousands of others who arrived before the program was amended this year, Mr. Zhou and his wife, Sherry, had their visa application expedited after proving they were willing and capable of investing $200,000 in a P.E.I. business. Nominees were also required to pay a $25,000 good faith deposit, which is returned after a year of living in the province.
While Mr. Rudderham said the economic impact of the province’s strategic immigration policy “cannot be understated” — new car sales at his dealership have doubled since 2008, he said — the program has not been without its controversy. Before the first round of the federal-provincial nominee program expired on Sept. 2, 2008, the province rushed through nearly 2,000 applicants. Questions later arose about the quality of companies approved for investment, and there were allegations that companies owned by MLAs and senior civil servants were favoured.
An online petition calling for a public inquiry was launched in 2009, and it has since gleaned nearly 200 signatures, including one from a woman who said “people on this island face many challenges with food prices rising, the cost of living on P.E.I. is getting out of hand.”
Ms. McInnis, a single mother on a budget, said she, too, has noticed food prices climbing, especially when it comes to the basics.
“A few years ago, a loaf of bread used to be $1.99, but now it’s more like $2.49,” she said. “[The immigration surge] is not the only factor, but it might contribute.”
In February, the province and Citizenship and Immigration Canada announced a revamped nominee program, which will cap nominations at 400 for this year. Under the new rules, immigrants will also have the choice of buying a one-third ownership in a company or investing $1-million for five years as a loan.
The immigrants arriving to the island through the nominee program are for the most part different from the majority of those who arrived to cities such as Toronto and Vancouver in the late 1990s: The latter influx of predominantly Cantonese-speaking newcomers came from Hong Kong on the heels of China’s repatriation of the island, while this latest surge of predominantly Mandarin-speaking newcomers to P.E.I. comes amid economic growth in mainland China.
“Once the economy got better, and once people’s pockets got deeper, they wanted to explore opportunities outside China,” said Mr. Zhou, president of Sunrise Group, a software development and consulting firm with offices on P.E.I. and in Shanghai and Beijing.
The majority of principal applicants to the nominee program are well-educated, boast extensive business backgrounds and have a genuine interest in learning English, said Mr. Mackie, of the P.E.I. Association for Newcomers, which recently hosted its first mah-jong tournament in Charlottetown. He said he does not foresee a Chinatown emerging in the capital city soon — or ever.
“If you look at the history of the country, people who are economically challenged have tended to move into neighbourhoods where the cost of living is lower,” he said. “But we’re talking about people who can afford to buy good homes and choose where they want to live.”
Hamish Redpath, a realtor who recently launched a monthly bilingual publication called Ni Hao PEI (Mandarin for “Hello P.E.I.”), said he regularly shows homes to Chinese newcomers at prices ranging between $400,000 to $1.5-million. He said the Chinese community is peppered throughout Charlottetown and across the bridges in communities such as Stratford and Cornwall.
“They’re interested in beautiful homes, with water views or right on the waterfront,” Mr. Redpath said, adding that he serves Chinese families looking for more modest abodes, too. “I have also shown Chinese families some rural homesteads outside of Charlottetown. They have lived in Beijing all their lives and they talked to me about the pollution and the crazy traffic, so to come here and have five acres and a little farmhouse for a couple hundred thousand bucks is a dream come true.”

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