Thank you for the invitation to speak to you today and to share some of my thoughts on immigration in Atlantic Canada. I am a labour economist. I have dealt with big data issues for most of my research life, and so much of what I'm going to be talking about today is data-related.
The challenges of an aging population have been really well documented and include decreased local labour supply, decreased local demand for goods and services, decreased tax revenue from most sources, and difficulty providing core services, such as education and health care, among many others.
It is also well known that the Atlantic provinces have on average an older, less skilled, and less healthy population than other Canadian provinces, with higher unemployment rates and lower employment rates. New Brunswick, for example, had an unemployment rate of 8.4% and an employment rate of 56.4% in May 2017, while 19.5% of the population are age 65 or over. The numbers for Canada overall are 6.6%, 61.5%, and 16.5%.
One common response is to promote immigration into the Atlantic provinces, including into the less populated areas as a way to arrest these trends. There is no doubt that immigration is the key driver of continuing population growth in Canada and a crucial component for aggregate economic growth. Immigration itself is not a panacea for Atlantic Canada. It requires an understanding of both the underlying demographic and economic environment and of what motivates people to stay or to move.
On the first point, one key aspect is that Atlantic Canadian provinces also have relatively high percentages of population in rural areas, outside of cities and larger towns. New Brunswick is 48% rural, compared with 19% for Canada overall. The last time Ontario and Quebec were 48% rural was in 1921. Even Saskatchewan, with 33% of its population in rural areas, last had a 48% rural population in 1976.
A second aspect of Atlantic Canada that perhaps is not as well known is that there is a key distinction between the cities and the rest of the Atlantic provinces. If we focus on the cities in Atlantic Canada and compare them with smaller cities elsewhere, say, cities of less than 200,000 people in other provinces, we find that Atlantic cities are doing quite well. For example, in May 2017, the unemployment rate in the Moncton, New Brunswick, census metropolitan area or CMA was 6.1%, and in Saint John 5.6%, compared with 6.7% in Peterborough and 5.6% in Abbotsford. Only 15% of the population of the Halifax CMA is age 65 or over, and 17.6% of the Saint John population is 65 or over, compared with 22.3% for Trois-Rivières and 19.1% for Thunder Bay.
The cities are growing steadily in population as well. Between 2006 and 2016, Fredericton city, where I live, grew by 14.9%, Charlottetown by 12.5%, and Halifax by 8.3%, although Saint John city showed no change. High provincial unemployment rates arise from high rural unemployment rates in Atlantic Canada, for example, 11.8% in P.E.I. and 12.3% in New Brunswick. By way of contrast, the unemployment rate of rural Quebec is 5.4% as of May 2017.
The Atlantic provinces are urbanizing, and immigration on its own will not solve the challenges of rural areas and small towns in these provinces.
Immigrant attraction and retention are complex issues. Much research has gone into understanding what motivates people to move in and move on. One indisputable factor is the importance of the availability of employment. If there is demand in an area, either for employees by firms looking to hire, or for goods and services that are currently undersupplied, or both, then people, both Canadian-born and immigrants, will be attracted to the area.
Employment opportunities may attract people, but they may not be enough to keep them. There would also need to be suitable employment opportunities for spouses, an issue that's often overlooked. Amenities and quality of life are also very important.
For immigrants, of course, there are additional challenges. Employment opportunities may abound, but if credentials are not recognized, and especially if language proficiency is lacking, then jobs will go unfilled. Research has shown that so-called ethnic networks of one's own cultural, linguistic, or ethnic group can play an important role in retaining immigrants. Since Atlantic Canadian provinces do not have a relatively high proportion of overseas-born—around 4%, compared with 20% for Canada overall—these networks can be small.
I'll take a bit of an aside into some statistical discussion. One of the key metrics we look at, one on which New Brunswick is often criticized, is retention rates.
Statistics on retention of immigrants may vary substantially by how retention is defined and by data source. For example, retention statistics calculated based on landing records from IRCC linked to tax records will understate true retention since a substantial number of immigrants whose stated province of arrival is an Atlantic province will, in fact, never land in that province. One study for New Brunswick found that about 67% of provincial nominees whose intended destination was New Brunswick filed tax in New Brunswick after a year, only 67%. However, recent work by my team, using provincial medicare registry data, finds that five years after registering for medicare, more than 70% of immigrants from the U.K. and Europe, 67% of the immigrants from Asia, and about 60% of immigrants from the Mideast and Africa are still resident in the New Brunswick medicare system. It should be noted that about 80% of immigrants to New Brunswick are choosing to locate in one of the three main cities.
On increasing immigration to the region, others, I'm sure, have a lot more to offer on this question than I do, but I would like to emphasize that settlement agencies, integration policies, welcoming communities, and related services, though vitally important for retention, are of little value if there are not also economic opportunities for immigrants.