OTTAWA -- Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger was raging Wednesday after learning the federal government is pulling out of a longtime agreement to provide shared settlement services for immigrants to the province.

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‘Immigration has been an enormous source of strength for the Manitoba economy. When we need truck drivers, we go get truck drivers. When we need engineers, we go get engineers’ — Premier Greg Selinger

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‘Immigration has been an enormous source of strength for the Manitoba economy. When we need truck drivers, we go get truck drivers. When we need engineers, we go get engineers’ — Premier Greg Selinger

OTTAWA -- Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger was raging Wednesday after learning the federal government is pulling out of a longtime agreement to provide shared settlement services for immigrants to the province.

Department officials in Manitoba began hearing about the possibility earlier this week but it was confirmed to Selinger Wednesday morning.

"I'm a little blown away by what they're doing," said Selinger. "We had no idea this was coming."

Federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney is on a nationwide tour launching reforms to the immigration system to reduce backlogs in applications and better target labour shortages with skilled workers from abroad.

That is exactly what the provincial nominee program was intended to do, said Selinger, and by withdrawing from the settlement-services agreement, Ottawa is sticking a knife in the whole nominee program.

"Immigration has been an enormous source of strength for the Manitoba economy," he said. "When we need truck drivers, we go get truck drivers. When we need engineers, we go get engineers."

Selinger credits the settlement-services agreement for ensuring nominees are not just recruited but that they integrate into the economy and their communities quickly. Manitoba immigrants had the second-lowest unemployment rate of any province in 2011, behind only Alberta. An assessment of the program in 2009 found 85 per cent of provincial nominees to Manitoba were working within three months and nine in 10 had permanent jobs. After three to five years, eight in 10 were working in their field or a related field.

A source confirmed Ottawa is taking back control over settlement services in Manitoba and British Columbia. They are the only two provinces where Ottawa funds the services and the province provides them.

More than 200 programs provide various services to new immigrants across Manitoba, ranging from language and job training to social services that help families enrol kids in school or even figure out public transit systems. Ottawa is spending $36 million this year on the services in Manitoba, up from $30 million last year.

The source said the funding will not change, the difference is the programs will be under federal control: "We believe wherever new Canadians choose to settle they're able to receive a consistent level of service."

The only way the Conservatives believe that can happen is if all the programs are administered from Ottawa.

She also noted the province's funding for settlement services is $1.25 million, down slightly from last year's $1.33 million.

The change will occur in the next two years.

More than 100,000 immigrants have settled in Manitoba since the provincial nominee program began in 1999. The total number of immigrants per year has more than tripled to nearly 16,000. Nominees account for more than three-quarters of those.

Selinger said it makes no sense that Ottawa would tinker with a program that works so well.

"It's a real mistake to destroy something with proven results," he said.

He said he hopes Kenney will change his mind. "We have a year's notice," he said. "Cooler heads should prevail."

Kenney was in Saskatchewan Wednesday announcing other new rules for nominee programs, including new language-testing requirements that will see all nominee immigrants undergo mandatory speaking, reading and writing tests.

Manitoba was the first province to establish a nominee program, which lets provinces seek their own immigrants to meet specific labour-market needs, even though Ottawa has jurisdiction for immigration. The province's program was so successful, eight other provinces and two territories now have them.

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca