Feb 8, 2012 – 9:28 AM ET
Aaron Lynett / National Post / Files
Tommy Su rises and signs the national anthem with fellow new Canadians during the Canadian citizenship ceremony on Canada Day, July 1, 2010 at Queen's Park in Toronto. The ceremony welcomed thirty candidates from eighteen different countries.
By Tobi Cohen
Harpreet Rehlan and his wife, Ravinder Kaur, are emblematic of a new trend that has come to define the changing face of Canada — two-thirds of the country’s population growth is now fuelled by immigration.
Moreover, newcomers aren’t necessarily going to Central Canada in the same numbers, and are instead moving to other cities in the West, such as Regina, where the couple landed a little more than two weeks ago after saying goodbye to their families in India.
“I heard Regina is a good place to live,” said Rehlan, who learned about the Saskatchewan capital from a friend who is there on a work visa.
While they both have master’s degrees, they came to Canada under the federal skilled worker program — Rehlan as an automotive technician and Kaur, as a school librarian.
They’ve already found an apartment, a decent curry restaurant, and Kaur has enrolled in English classes at a local immigration centre.
Rehlan said they’ve had several job interviews and he’s optimistic about their future.
It appears, for good reason.
Saskatchewan recently reported some of the highest job vacancy rates in all of Canada and, according to the latest census figures released Wednesday, newcomers are flocking there like never before.
Since 2006, Saskatchewan welcomed nearly three times as many immigrants as it did in the previous five years, while the number of immigrants who settled in Manitoba doubled, according to Statistics Canada.
Meanwhile, Ontario — which was hit harder by the economic downturn and has struggled with an ailing manufacturing sector — saw 96,000 fewer immigrants settle in the province during the most recent census period.
“People go where the jobs are. That’s always been the case,” said Susan McDaniel, a sociologist and demographer with the University of Lethbridge, noting growth in the oil and gas sector, the potash industry and high tech fields are fuelling population spikes in places such as Saskatchewan.
“With Ontario, there’s been a huge hollowing out of the industrial base there.”
Nationally, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has identified immigration reform as a necessary prerequisite to building a stronger Canadian economy for the future. He has signalled the government will put a greater emphasis on accepting immigrants into Canada who have a particular skill that is needed in the workforce.
Prince Edward Island, another province that has embraced Citizenship and Immigration’s provincial nominee program, which gives provinces and territories greater say over the selection of immigrants, has also experienced a massive influx of newcomers with more than 8,100 settling there since 2006 compared to just 1,100 between 2001 and 2006.
It’s a trend that won’t last, said Godfrey Baldacchino, a sociology professor and Canada Research Chair in Island Studies at the University of Prince Edward Island.
Much of the immigrant-fuelled Maritime population spike since 2006 — it occurred to a lesser extent in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia — was due to abuse of the provincial nominee program, which is now under investigation in those provinces.
In a bid to attract wealthy immigrant investors, the provinces expedited the visa process and before long allegations of bribery and corruption followed, along with scathing auditor general’s reports, lawsuits and police investigations.
Noting unemployment rates in P.E.I. are among the highest in the country, Baldacchino said there is already evidence that many of those immigrants who came through the program have since moved on to other parts of the country, in some cases without ever even stepping foot in P.E.I.
“I think we’ve hit the maximum,” he said. “The numbers will start going down.”
Unlike the United States, where growth is still driven by natural increases in population — the difference between births and deaths — only a third of Canada’s growth is due to fertility.
It’s a trend that’s been going on for about a decade due to the rapid decrease in fertility that began in the late 1960s and 1970s and the increase in the number of deaths due to an aging population.
“As a result, the numbers of births and deaths have converged since the end of the Baby Boom in Canada, and migratory increase has taken on an increasingly important role in recent Canadian population growth,” Statistics Canada’s census report concluded.
Population projections suggest the trend will continue as baby boomers die off and that by 2031, immigration will account for more than 80 per cent of Canada’s overall population growth.
“Without a sustained level of immigration or a substantial increase in fertility, Canada’s population growth could, within 20 years, be close to zero,” the report found.
With an immigration system that’s placed a greater emphasis on temporary foreign workers and student visas combined with huge backlogs in applications for permanent residence, it also raises questions about whether Canada may not just become a country of immigrants, but whether it may also become a country of non-Canadians.
While it’s not clear exactly how many of the 33,476,688 people enumerated in the 2011 census are landed immigrants, refugees or people here on study or work permits, all are included in Canada’s total population.
Asked about the possibility of a Canada comprised of mostly non-Canadians, Rick Dykstra, the parliamentary secretary to Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, said the government is looking at ways to expedite the citizenship process, but is also being careful to ensure those who take the leap are worthy.
“If you’re going to be a Canadian citizen, you have to treat it with the type of honour and dignity and respect that it deserves,” he said.
“We think you should really have to achieve a high level of understanding of this country in terms of its history, what it’s all about, to accept the values that we practise in this country, the democracy that we have and obviously the ability to be able to speak one of the official languages at a capacity that enables them to be able to interact with other Canadians,” he said.