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Battling Ontario for immigrants

Ottawa placing strict limits on nominee program

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It's Ottawa's version of gladiator games, with the provinces all thrown together into a single arena to see which one will emerge victorious.

The battle is over the suddenly fashionable provincial nominee immigration program, which several provinces, Manitoba among them, have used to boost populations and fill holes in their labour markets. Unfortunately, Ottawa, which has concerns about the way some provinces are administering the program, is refusing to increase the total number of provincial nominees. Ottawa is also making the requirements for admission more stringent. In particular, the federal government wants to see more emphasis on English- or French-language proficiency.

The timing of Ottawa's stinginess couldn't be worse, as there is increasing demand for provincial nominees, both by provinces such as Manitoba that have used it to spur economic growth, and by provinces such as Ontario that have largely ignored the program but now desperately need population growth to restart their economies.

Ontario has been particularly slow to embrace provincial nominees. For so long, Ontario effortlessly attracted the lion's share of Canada's annual quota of immigrants, as much as 60 per cent of the total number admitted in any one year. However, the latest batch of census data shows Ontario, still reeling from the recession, is not the destination of choice it once was. Ontario's population is still growing but at a lower rate than the West. And it is attracting a smaller share of total immigration, a major concern as the province struggles to stoke its economy.

All that has put a spotlight on the provincial nominee program and the gains smaller provinces have made. Consider that last year, Manitoba admitted about 12,000 provincial nominees, while Ontario only had about 1,000. Ontario officials claim that is evidence smaller provinces are stealing immigrants from Ontario. The smaller provinces can only giggle about that allegation, even though they are concerned about Ontario gobbling up the lion's share of the program.

The real irony here is the provincial nominee program was introduced as a way of balancing the settlement of immigrants by diverting more new Canadians to smaller, less desirable provinces. Before this program was in effect, the overwhelming majority of immigrants went to Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal. Provincial nominees, which allow the provinces to directly recruit immigrants with specific job skills to fill gaps in the labour market, seemed to be the answer.

Smaller provinces were permitted to recruit immigrants with specific skill sets to fill specific jobs. The real enticement was individual provinces could recruit immigrants who normally would not normally qualify for admission under the skilled-worker program.

Despite early concerns provincial nominees would become nothing more than a drain on social programs, or they would simply land in Regina or Winnipeg and then just flee to Toronto or Vancouver, the provincial nominee program did what it said it would do, which is grow the population and economies of smaller provinces.

There wouldn't be a need for the provinces to duke it out if Ottawa were simply willing to increase the total number of provincial nominees it admits each year. Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has so far turned aside those demands.

The fly in the provincial nominee ointment, so to speak, has been a series of crimes and misdemeanours committed by provincial nominee Atlantic provinces. Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia have all suffered through various scandals associated with their versions of the program, with allegations of payola, corruption and misuse of funds and the accompanying condemnation by provincial auditors general. The question here is whether this is evidence the program itself is flawed, or just the political culture of the provinces that tried to mess it up?

For some years now, total immigration has been capped at 250,000 annually. The pressure from provinces to expand the provincial nominee program can only be accomplished if the Conservative government can accept the notion of raising the cap on total immigration. That seems like a real long shot, for now.

A more likely scenario is the provinces will be encouraged to battle each other for a single provincial nominee pie. In that battle, smaller provinces such as Manitoba will have to somehow perform like David against the increasingly assertive Goliath that is Ontario. With greater numbers of MPs and thus political weight to wield in the Conservative government, the early odds tell us to take the big fella.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 9, 2012 $sourceSection0

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