P.E.I. learns to attract newcomers, but keeping them may prove the hard part
By: Melanie Patten, The Canadian Press
CHARLOTTETOWN - The latest census numbers suggest Prince Edward Island has figured out how to attract skilled immigrants. The question now is whether Canada's smallest province can hold on to them.
P.E.I.'s growth rate increased to 3.2 per cent during the latest five-year census period, Statistics Canada said Wednesday, an increase fuelled largely by an influx of immigrants — more than 8,100 of them between 2006 and 2011, compared with just over 1,100 during the previous five years.
The problem is, they don't all stay.
Two years after trading the busy streets of Tianjin, China, for P.E.I.'s leisurely pastures, Alex Yin and Juan Du wondered if there might be better opportunities for their young daughter in a more cosmopolitan city.
So the family of three left their adopted home in 2009 and settled in Toronto, where they bought a house and enrolled Kitty, now 13, in private school. But it wasn't long before they began pining for the charming red-sand province on Canada's East Coast.
“Toronto is really a big city, but it made us feel we really missed this tiny island,” said Du, 37, whose family has since grown to include toddler Max and a soon-to-be sibling. “We thought ... here is the best place, especially for us to raise our kids.”
Yin, Du and Kitty are among more than 5,000 people who immigrated to P.E.I. between 2005 and 2009. They, like the vast majority of immigrants, came to the island through the provincial nominee program, which welcomed more than 2,700 newcomers to P.E.I. in 2008 and 2009 alone.
Like most newcomers, they chose to settle in the historic capital city of Charlottetown, which boasts a quaint downtown, a harbour, post-secondary schools and the province's largest hospital.
The changing multicultural face of Charlottetown is apparent on the city's streets, where several ethnic restaurants and Asian grocery stores have cropped up in recent years. Last year, a local realtor launched a Mandarin-language newspaper.
Immigrants have also helped to jump-start Charlottetown's economy by snapping up and vehicles and houses. Yin and Du, for example, own several rental properties. Yin, 41, also works as a settlement worker at the P.E.I. Association for Newcomers to Canada.
“I truly believe that Prince Edward Island avoided the recession that much of the country went through in 2009 because of the number of newcomers who moved (here) in the past five years,” says Kathy Hambly, executive director of the Greater Charlottetown Area Chamber of Commerce.
There's no doubt immigrants are making an impact, but the question remains: for how long?
Six months ago, the chamber launched P.E.I. Connectors — a program that aims to connect newcomers with business contacts.
“An awful lot of immigrants were coming to P.E.I., but we had the impression that many of them were not staying very long," said program co-ordinator Don MacCormac.
Language is usually the biggest barrier facing new immigrants looking for work.
Byoung Choi worked as a high school teacher in Seoul, South Korea, before moving to Charlottetown in July 2007. Limited by his poor English, the married father of two found himself working part-time at a convenience store for a year.
Driven by his desire to teach again, Choi, 52, enrolled in English classes at a local college and worked as a translator at the Chameleon Language Centre. When the school's owner moved on last year, Choi took over the small business.
It was Charlottetown’s welcoming atmosphere that endeared him to a province he had never heard of before applying to the nominee program.
“Charlottetown is very quiet, it's a cosy town," says Choi, 52. “There are so many old buildings and especially the residents everywhere ... we have eye contact, they always say hello.”
The provincial government insists its efforts to attract immigrants have been successful. But its nominee program hasn't been without controversy.
During last year's provincial election campaign, a former government employee accused senior provincial officials of accepting cash bribes in order to expedite applications from China.
Innovation Minister Allen Roach, whose department administers the program, said he doesn't believe the allegations have hurt the province's immigration strategy.
“The program has gone through growing pains right across the country, not just Prince Edward Island,” he said. “We're not immune to those growing pains.”
Still, the immigration influx of the past five years isn't likely to repeat itself any time soon.
The program’s rules were tightened last year, which the province expects will curb the numbers. The federal government has also lowered the limit on the number of immigrants P.E.I. can accept.
And while the provincial government does not know how many recent immigrants to the island have left, Roach said emerging job opportunities in the aerospace and bioscience sectors, among others, should boost retention.
Those efforts are key for new immigrants, said MacCormac.
“They love the quality of life that's here,” he said. “As long as there's an opportunity to make a living or get involved in business, they'd love to stay.”
Yin and Du echo that sentiment.
“We are happy here,” said Yin. “This is the best place ever, here in Canada, we believe.”