Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Score Manitoba nominee program as silver, not gold

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Last month, the Free Press published an article (Is Manitoba's immigration 'success' worth crowing over?) that indicated our immigration program is failing. But is it?

A closer look at the program reveals that while it is not perfect, it has generally been a success for Manitoba businesses, families and immigrants who move here.

The Manitoba Provincial Nominee Program, designed to allow Manitoba to select desirable immigrants, has been adapted by virtually all Canadian provinces and territories.

The main criticisms of the program revolve around the income levels of Manitoba immigrants. In one study, it was found that, from 2005 to 2009, the average employment income of Manitoba immigrants was lower than in other western provinces and did not keep pace with average employment earnings for non-immigrants.

At first glance these criticisms look to be devastating, but the data is old and does not reflect the reality of 2012.

In 2004, Manitoba changed one of its main priority streams -- the employer-direct stream -- to better match employees and employers. This direct stream allows Manitoba employers to identify foreigners needed for jobs not being filled by Manitobans.

Before the 2004 changes, potential immigrants only needed a Manitoba job offer to apply to immigrate. Because many immigration applications took years to process, many immigrants found the jobs they were offered were filled by the time they got here.

The changes required that potential immigrants work in Manitoba as temporary foreign workers for six months before being allowed to apply to immigrate.

This resulted in two improvements.

First, by requiring individuals to have Manitoba work experience, Manitoba essentially created a six-month probationary period for employers and foreign workers to assess each other.

As a result, only employer-employee relationships that worked after six months resulted in immigration to Manitoba.

In addition, since federal immigration laws require most businesses to prove there are no Canadians or permanent residents available to fill a job before an employer is given permission to hire a foreign worker, most employers had to advertise the vacant positions to Manitobans first, with a wage determined by the federal government that is at or above the average wage for the position.

As a result, before a foreign worker could be hired, unemployed Manitobans were offered the jobs.

So far in 2012, 71 per cent of immigrants under the employer-direct stream had jobs in Manitoba approved by the federal government at wages that were at or above the average wage for that occupation.

Another important change was to the international student stream. Under this stream, Manitoba encourages foreign students who have finished their studies to apply to immigrate. As most of these students are finishing school, it is likely their wages will not be as high as for those who have been working in Manitoba for a number of years.

The point of the international student stream, however, is to select the best and brightest young people to come to Manitoba. What better way to assess future immigrants to Manitoba than to educate them here?

In 2008, Manitoba made a further change that required foreign students not only to graduate, but to work in Manitoba for six months before being able to apply to immigrate. As a result, the students Manitoba recruits are the successful ones. University and college dropouts need not apply.

As Manitoba has changed and improved its program, the results to businesses and the immigrants who settle here also have improved.

In a 2009 evaluation of the Manitoba provincial nominee program, it was found that 85 per cent of provincial nominees were working after three months and 89 per cent had permanent jobs. After three to five years, 76 per cent were homeowners and 83 per cent were working in their fields or in a related field.

In 2011, Statistics Canada found that Manitoba was just behind Alberta with the second lowest unemployment rate among recent immigrants who arrived in the last five to 10 years.

Manitoba's unemployment rate of 7.1 per cent was more than two full percentage points lower than the national average of 9.7 per cent (Alberta's rate was 6.3 per cent).

These numbers are not the hallmark of a failed immigration program.

Manitoba's immigration program is not perfect. There are still a number of immigrants that arrive under Manitoba's family-support stream and general stream without jobs and struggle with being unemployed or underemployed.

As well, issues continue to exist regarding the recognition of foreign-obtained credentials and foreign work experience for immigrating professionals and tradespeople.

While Statistics Canada labour force surveys showed that "very recent" immigrants to Manitoba -- immigrants who have arrived in the last five years -- had the second-highest participation and employment rates in Canada in 2011, there is still work to do on these fronts.

If success is measured only in first-place finishes, Manitoba has failed. If silver and bronze medals are counted, however, Manitoba's performance is a success.

If one only counted the gold medals at the Summer Olympics, Canada would have finished in 36th place this year. When silvers and bronzes are counted, Canada finished 13th. I'm counting the silvers and the bronzes.

R. Reis Pagtakhan is an immigration lawyer with Aikins Law in Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 23, 2012 A11

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