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Morden opens its arms

Program welcomes immigrant workers

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Anna Repina and Roman Plokhotniuk left Ukraine for a new life in Morden, thanks to a local immigration initiative.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Anna Repina and Roman Plokhotniuk left Ukraine for a new life in Morden, thanks to a local immigration initiative. Photo Store

MORDEN -- Anna Repina, who arrived in Canada less than two months ago from Odessa in southern Ukraine, doesn't keep just one online blog: She keeps three.

One is a travel blog, another is a blog about her experience with the immigration process to help others, and the third is about her new life in Canada.

"I describe every day we spend in Morden, my impressions of everything, and I try to be honest," she said. That includes the challenge of keeping a budget, what things cost in Canada and the weather, which surprisingly7 hasn't phased her or husband Roman Plokhotniuk.

The name of the blog? Love Canada. It's at lovecanada.od.ua, written in Russian, but a Google translation will pop up with a search. It gets up to 250 unique visitors per day.

That sums up how the couple feel about their new home.

While people here say recent legislation from both the federal and provincial governments has stifled immigration to rural Manitoba, some people like Anna and Roman are still squeezing in under an initiative started by the City of Morden.

'For every hundred applicants we receive, we probably accept one. It's like winning a lottery'

-- Cheryl Digby, Morden community development officer

But it's very tough. "For every hundred applicants we receive, we probably accept one. It's like winning a lottery," said Cheryl Digby, Morden community development officer and the person in charge of Morden's program.

The small Prairie city, 104 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg, took the lead because it was afraid of losing its manufacturing sector to the United States. There aren't enough workers to support its manufacturing base, and efforts to attract labour from Winnipeg have had little success.

The program tries to work through new legislation recently introduced to the Provincial Nominee Program (PNP).

One change is the NDP government's Bill 22, the Worker Recruitment and Protection Act, introduced in 2010, that prohibits private immigration consultants from finding jobs for prospective immigrants. The government believed the system left immigrants open to abuses.

To get around Bill 22, a Morden government official takes over the consultant's work of trying to match immigrants with jobs. There is no fee attached, and the government official is considered impartial, so that gets around Bill 22 restrictions.

The other obstacle is the Harper government's new higher English language requirements that began in 2012.

The problem is the English standards favour professionals such as lawyers and engineers, whose skills might fit a large urban centre more than a small rural community. What's really needed in a place like Morden is tradespeople. The Morden program can't get around higher English requirements, but it can do a better job of screening applicants to find those most likely to stay in Morden.

The process includes an hour-long Skype interview. Morden has also appointed a volunteer panel that includes people such as a health-care worker, an educator and a recent immigrant, to assess applicants for their adaptability.

For example, Roman fit the need for machinists. In Ukraine, he managed a sunflower-seed oil plant. He is now employed by Decor Cabinets in Morden. Decor is one of the big employers of immigrants in the region. Up to 45 per cent of Decor's 420 employees were hired through PNP.

Morden also requires all applicants approved by the panel do an exploratory visit of their community and meet with prospective employers before making a final decision. This adds another cost to the applicant. More details are on its website (mordenmb.ca).

Anna, 27, and Roman, 30 -- they were born on the same date, Jan. 19 -- passed their International English Language Testing System exam, which can be taken in a college or university in their home country for a fee, but it wasn't easy.

Anna said people in Ukraine have been taught English through the school system for the past 15 years, starting as early as kindergarten. But that won't get you into Canada. She continued to take English-language courses in university. Roman took online courses and had a private instructor provide him with lessons once or twice a week.

They are exceptional candidates, but that's what it takes now for rural communities to land immigrants, Digby said.

"We're in our infancy," Digby said of the Morden program. Just 13 families have arrived so far. But many more are in the pipeline. It is now approving about one family per week. That's not a lot for the region, but it's a beginning. The process can take up to two years for immigrants to clear all the red tape once they've been accepted.

The reputation of the program is spreading. "Job offers are increasing and interest is picking up abroad. There's a lot of good buzz," said Shelly Voth, Morden's immigration co-ordinator.

Meanwhile, the new arrivals from Odessa are over the moon about their immigration. There has not been a weekend since they arrived when they haven't been invited into someone's home.

"I'm impressed with decor," added Roman. "Compared to Ukraine factories, it's very modern; there are very good managers, and everyone smiles and is ready to help. I have everything I want."

bill.redekop@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 19, 2014 A4

History

Updated on Wednesday, February 19, 2014 at 7:43 AM CST: Replaces photo

10:34 AM: Corrects figure to 45 per cent

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