WINKLER -- The first immigrants started to arrive here in 1997 under a pilot project that would eventually be called the Provincial Nominee Program.
Manitoba's population was stagnant at the time and on the verge of slipping back. A defeatist attitude was setting in. Some people said Manitoba would never grow because no one wanted to live in this climate.
The pilot project that started in Winkler, and suddenly landed scores of immigrants to fill jobs that couldn't be filled locally, shook the province from its doldrums. The population started to grow again and Manitoba's Provincial Nominee Program (PNP) became the most successful immigration venture in the country.
But today, almost 17 years later, the program is tanking in the very place it began. Companies in Winkler and Morden, eight kilometres apart, are begging for workers again. Major local employers like Meridian Manufacturing and Triple E Recreational Vehicles have Help Wanted signs posted on highways leading into their communities.
'We need all kinds of different workers and we are trying all kinds of different ways to find those workers, said. The problem is governments keep changing the program (PNP) to the point it's almost useless to us'
"We need all kinds of different workers and we are trying all kinds of different ways to find those workers," said Bernie Thiessen, vice-president of Meridian Manufacturing. "The problem is governments keep changing the program (PNP) to the point it's almost useless to us."
The figures back him up. As late as 2009, this area was still getting about 1,000 immigrants per year. But just 400 arrived last year, and about 225 for the first three quarters of 2013.
Five years ago, 27 per cent of immigrants to Manitoba were settling outside Winnipeg. The rate is now 15 per cent in the latest figures for 2013.
The PNP selects skilled foreign workers with the potential to contribute to Manitoba's labour market. Close to 80 per cent of immigrants arrive in Manitoba through the PNP.
The problem, say business people such as Thiessen and local mayors, is politicians keep fiddling with the program.
In 2010, the NDP government passed Bill 22, its Worker Recruitment and Protection Act. While the bill has provided immigrants more protection from shady immigration brokers, it also stops licensed immigration brokers from acting as job recruiters. They can't even mention jobs without losing their licence. But the first question any immigrant asks is, "Where will I work?" So immigrant workers began bypassing Manitoba for Saskatchewan and Alberta.
Next it was the Harper government's turn. First, it capped the number of PNP immigrants a province could obtain. In Manitoba's case, the cap is at about 5,000 approvals, plus their families. The cap meant Manitoba lost its head start and other provinces have caught up.
Then in 2011, the Harper government raised English-language standards on newcomers to a Level 4 in the International English Language Testing System. The problem is that excludes many welders and mechanics, the type of employee needed in the booming manufacturing sector in the Pembina Valley.
The immigrants being approved are those with better English skills and they tend to be professionals such as engineers, Internet techies, economists and lawyers. They have been arriving in the Pembina Valley but the retention rate is low.
In an email, the province blamed Ottawa's cap on PNP approvals for reduced immigration, plus smaller family sizes among immigrants and longer processing times by Citizenship and Immigration Canada. The provincial spokeswoman said the province's Bill 22 has ensured the PNP process is transparent and fair and supports employers in international recruitment.
On the federal side, an email from Citizenship and Immigration Canada defended its new language requirement, saying language "is a key factor in the success of new citizens to establish themselves both economically and socially in Canada." It added that minimum language skills are necessary for health and safety reasons, "especially in the low-skilled occupations."
However, the Harper government is also drafting an approach used in New Zealand it hopes to implement in 2015 that would pool and filter those immigrants who meet Canada's labour needs more quickly.
Winkler Mayor Martin Harder said what the federal government may not know is all the major companies such as Triple E, Meridian and Convey-All Industries have their own at-work English-training programs for immigrants. Harder planned to discuss immigration when he met with Premier Greg Selinger on Feb. 10.
Winkler has added about 250 units of entry-level housing in the form of side-by-sides and townhouses for newcomers.
If the federal government is concerned about immigrants’ language proficiency, isn’t funding training in Canada a better solution than raising the language requirements of applicants? Join the conversation in the comments below.