BY CHARLES HAMILTON, BRIDGES MARCH 21, 2012
Lisa and Ian Corrigan are happy to be here. Sitting at their large dining room table in their new rental home near the bank of the South Saskatchewan River, it’s easy to see why. They are surrounded by the sounds of kids playing. There are freshly baked muffins on the kitchen counter, water boiling on the stove for tea. Their neighbour, Jerry, has just stopped by, to bring them a freshly baked pie.
Only seven months ago in Ireland, Lisa, 30, and Ian, 36, were working four jobs to support their family — she was an insurance broker and an event planner. He worked as a consultant for a construction firm. In the evenings, they ran a small pub for extra money. There was barely any time for their kids — Katie, six and Dylan, four — let alone for muffins.
“Our reason for coming here was the quality of life,” says Lisa, sipping from her cup of tea.
“Back in Ireland, we were working a hundred hours a week. Each.”
“That’s what people back home are doing,” Ian pipes in. “They are working every hour God is sending them and they are getting it hard.”
The couple has no relatives here. Back home, they lived next to Ian’s parents and worked with Lisa’s parents.
“If you could pick (your family) up and bring them with you, you would. But Skype is a good thing,” says Ian.
“They can see that people who are home now are struggling,” Lisa adds. “They’ve gone from the thing of missing us to saying we are so lucky, so fortunate to be here.”
Canada, of course, was settled by Europeans. In the 1800s, people from Europe crossed the ocean in droves, many of them fleeing economic hardships back home. Some of them found a better life in the agriculturally rich prairies.
Now, a century later, many Europeans are again leaving their home countries, looking for a better life across the ocean. In Ireland, a recent report by the Economic and Social Research Institute estimates that almost 1,000 people are leaving each week, many of them highly skilled workers. In Greece, thousands of immigrants are also fleeing a country with a massive unemployment rate in search of work.
By 2030, according to Statistics Canada, more than 80 per cent of Canada’s population growth will rely on immigration. And while Asian and African countries will still dominate the pool of newcomers to Canada, this country is now experiencing a massive influx of Europeans. Thousands are coming to Canada and new generations of European immigrants are finding a new home — and jobs — on the prairies.
The Corrigans fondly remember the Celtic Tiger boom — the term widely used to describe an unprecedented period of Irish economic growth between 1995-2007. For more than a decade, they lived in a world of low interest rates and booming real estate and construction industries. In 2008, all that ended. The housing bubble burst and the recession hit Ireland — which was at the time one of the richest countries in the world — harder than almost anywhere else in the industrialized world.
The average house in Dublin is now worth 50 per cent less than it was at the peak of the bubble, but still high by our standards — €207,000 ($270,00 CAD) in 2011, down from €431,000 ($563,000 CAD) four years before.
Faced with an unemployment rate of nearly 15 per cent, people like Lisa and Ian Corrigan decided it was time to leave.
“The construction industry just plummeted,” says Ian, who is now a construction consultant with Stuart Olson Dominion. “It went from a big boom to just nothing.”
Lisa has just started working with O’Reilly Insurance.
In terms of sheer numbers, Saskatchewan still lags behind other provinces when it comes to international immigration. But this province’s skilled labour shortage means Saskatchewan is seeing an influx of skilled workers from abroad like never before.
From 1998 until 2004, more than 14,000 people came from abroad. Since then, that number has almost tripled. In 2011 alone an estimated 9,000 foreigners came to Saskatchewan — about 25 per day — the vast majority of them hand-picked for their skills through the province’s immigrant nominee program.
And in one of the largest shifts ever to this country’s immigration policy, people like Ian and Lisa are cutting through all the usual red tape. They are being courted by the province because of their skills. Ian came over at the request of Stuart Olson Dominion. He and his family are now in the process of acquiring permanent residency and hope to eventually become Canadian citizens.
Between 2000 and 2011, 8,829 newcomers or 19.4 per cent of immigrants to Saskatchewan came from Europe and the United Kingdom. They mainly came from Ukraine, UK, Germany and Russia. Ireland and Greece don’t even register in the top 10 in terms of countries of origin, but this is not a game of pure numbers. It’s about a shift in the way the province thinks about immigration.
“It used to be the ones who came here would move after one winter. They would go to Montreal or Vancouver,” says Doug Elliott with the Sask Trends Monitor. “But the whole nature of immigration has now changed.”
“Suddenly, all these folks are coming here who are not refugees, who are not families of immigrants. They are now what we call economic immigrants. They are coming here for jobs.”
Konstantinos Makrodimitriou didn’t even know Saskatoon existed before he moved here from Greece with a work permit. The 28-year-old came to Saskatoon this summer after being offered a job as a line cook at Manos restaurant. He left a country at the centre of the eurozone economic collapse. High unemployment and government-imposed austerity measures meant less pay, fewer benefits and higher taxes. More than 20 per cent of the country’s population is unemployed, but the collapse is hitting the youngest the hardest. Over half of Greece’s youth are without work.
“Things are not good in Greece. Jobs are not good anymore. No money, no future if you stay there anymore,” he says in his thick accent.
“Stay there for what? There is no reason. I came here for something better, so we will see.”
According to Greek media reports, in the last six months since the Greek economic debacle peaked, the Rome embassies for Canada and Australia have seen applications for work permits and visas nearly double. Greeks like Makrodimitriou are leaving their native country by the thousands, hoping to get back at least a little of what they lost before the collapse.
“Three years ago I was making more money in Greece than I am making now here. The prices were all so low,” Makrodimitriou says. “I don’t think they will (get better). I hope, but I don’t think so.”
Even though they are almost a continent apart, the Irish and Greeks have a lot in common. As in Greece, the unemployment situation in Ireland is hitting the country’s youngest workers the hardest. According to the National Youth Council of Ireland, youth unemployment has tripled since 2008 with one in three young men under 25 being out of work. The organization estimates that 70 per cent of unemployed youth plan to emigrate.
“Most of the people in my class didn’t get employment,” says 23-year old Chris O’Donovan, an Irish engineering graduate interning in Saskatoon.
Back home, O’Donovan’s father worked in the construction industry. He is still employed, but O’Donovan says they have watched as friends and relatives become desperate for work. One of his uncles, also an engineer, recently moved to Australia for work.
“It is tough. It is really tough now. I mean it’s terrible in Ireland. A lot of people are leaving.”
The Saskatchewan government is working on an aggressive immigration strategy, with a strong focus on places like Ireland. Since the collapse of the Irish economy, young, educated but unemployed professionals like O’Donovan have become a sought-after commodity.
“In about 2005 to 2007, people here in Saskatchewan were really trying to figure out the magic of the (Celtic) Tiger and they all wanted to go see what they were doing to attract capital and people,” says Joe Garcea, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan. “But of course since then Ireland has collapsed and we are going there not to look at the miracle of it but rather to pick through the pieces and see what we can bring back.”
O’Donovan lives in a basement suite with three other young international interns from places as far as way as Romania and Australia. One of his roommates from the Philippines has already applied for Saskatchewan’s nominee program. No one seems to mind living in a place they had never heard of before it showed up on the application form.
“When I said to mother I was going to Saskatchewan, she was like, ‘what? You are going to off Siberia?’” O’Donovan laughs. “She actually thought I was off to the middle of nowhere.”
Canada’s immigration policy has created a bizarre double reality for people wanting to move to Canada. On the one hand, there is a massive backlog of applications — some estimates put the number of applications waiting to be processed at more than a million. At the same time, provincial programs like Saskatchewan’s Immigrant Nominee Program allow provincial governments to hand pick immigrants according to their skills. Highly skilled workers with corporate backing like Ian Corrigan can skip ahead, while others are left to wait in line.
One of Ian Corrigan’s favourite expressions is to say that he and his family “fell on our feet.” They have been welcomed by their neighbours and their employers. When people hear their accents, they ask what brought them here.
“I say Saskatoon is really beautiful, why not live here?” says Lisa. “And they kind of look at you and say, ‘Oh do you really think so?’ There is a real modesty.”
One complication is driving, Ian says.
“You’re thinking why is that lad flashing me and you start to flash them back and then you realize, oh no, I’m on the wrong of side of the road!”
Since news of Saskatchewan’s recruitment plans made headlines, Ian says he has been fielding plenty of calls from back home. People want to know what it’s like to live in Saskatchewan, if it is worth it to move a world away for a better life.
“We are only just a drip,” he says. “With the government going over there, they are opening up the tap now. You will see a few more people coming over, definitely.”
After less than a year, the family is already blending into Saskatchewan culture. Katie is already “talking like a Canadian,” Lisa says.
“She came home one day and she said, ‘Mom, it was so awesome — I got a muffin at lunch time. It was so amazing.’ At home, it would have been ‘Mamy, I got a bun off the teacher and it was great.’”
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