Immigration to Atlantic Canada: 150 years overdue but better late than never

A guest post by blogger David Campbell**.

All Atlantic Canadians have to do is look around the next time they are out on the town to realize the region hasn’t attracted many immigrants in the last 20-30 years.  However, it might surprise people to realize our inability to entice more than a trickle of people from outside the borders of Canada goes back more than 150 years.  Now, demographic and economic realities mean the region will be forced to crank up the immigration tap.

Bathurst, a small city in northern New Brunswick, was settled in the 17th century by French immigrants in what eventually would be known as Acadia.  In the latter part of the 18th and early in the 19th Century, Bathurst and its surrounding communities started to also attract English and Scottish settlers but by the mid-1800s, immigration to the region slowed to a trickle.  In an excellent paper presented back in 2008, University of New Brunswick professor Greg Marquis wrote that population growth across all of New Brunswick came almost entirely through natural increase from the middle of the 19th Century onward.

As far back as the 1851 Census, Dr. Marquis found that immigrants only made up five to six percent of New Brunswick’s population[1].

Throughout the 20th Century New Brunswick’s immigration story was pretty much the same.  According to Statistics Canada in 1911 there were just over 18,000 immigrants living in New Brunswick or about 5.2 percent of the population.  By 1951, there were 19,875 immigrants or 3.9 percent of the population and by 2006 there were 26,400 immigrants (3.7 percent of the total population).  To put that in perspective, the City of Hamilton in Ontario was home to six times as many immigrants in 2006 than the entire province of New Brunswick.

Arguably, Atlantic Canada now has among the most homogenous populations of any jurisdiction in North America.    According to Statistics Canada, in 2006 nearly 97 percent of the population in Bathurst identified themselves as a third generation Canadian (i.e. they were born in Canada, their parents were born in Canada and their parents’ parents were born in Canada).

The rest of New Brunswick’s population is not far behind.  Nearly 90 percent (89.8 percent) of the province’s population was third generation Canadian in 2006 compared to 60.5 percent across the country and only 23.7 percent in Toronto.

As pointed out by Professor Marquis, a main reason why New Brunswick hasn’t attracted many immigrants is because natural population increase has been enough to satisfy local labour market demands.  In fact, even without much immigration New Brunswick saw a net out-migration of population throughout the 20th Century as people moved away to find jobs and careers elsewhere.

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Of course this isn’t just a New Brunswick problem.   All three Maritime Provinces – New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island stopped attracting immigrants in any significant way 150 years ago.   At the turn of the 20th Century, the Maritimes made up 13 percent of Canada’s population and only 3.6 percent of its immigrant population.  By 2006, only 1.2 percent of Canada’s immigrant population resided in the Maritime Provinces.

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Economic and demographic forces are driving the need for immigrants

Now New Brunswick and the rest of the Maritime Provinces have no choice but to attract immigrants.  Basic demography has caught up with the region.    In 1971, New Brunswick had the second youngest population as measured by median age (24 years old) among the 10 provinces across Canada and by 2011, we are now tied with Nova Scotia with the second oldest population (with a median age of 43.7) and Prince Edward Island is not far behind.

While the rest of Canada has gotten older too, it is still considerably younger (for example, the median aged person in Alberta is nearly eight years younger than the median aged person in New Brunswick) and its demonstrated ability to attract and retain immigrants means the tap can be opened any time to fill a local need.

The Maritime Provinces have not proven their ability to attract – and more crucially, retain – immigrants.

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Immigration into the Maritime Provinces is on the rise in recent years.  New Brunswick has seen its share of national immigration rise from 32 immigrants out of 10,000 across Canada in 1998/1999 to 77.4 per 10,000 in 2010/2011.  To put that in context, New Brunswick would need to attract 220 immigrants for every 10,000 across Canada just to attract an average level.  Prince Edward Island’s immigrant numbers have skyrocketed in recent years but high levels of interprovincial out-migration point to an inability to retain them.

Immigration to Nova Scotia is on the rise too but not back to the level of the early 1990s when that province witnessed an uptick in immigration.

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The region will need immigrants to fill skilled jobs in the information technology, professional services and health care sectors, among others.

In addition, the region will also need to attract immigrant workers for basic services jobs as well.  In just the past few years the number of immigrant workers brought in to fill front line service industry jobs such as in food services has risen strongly.

In rural New Brunswick, immigrant workers are being brought in to take full time year-round jobs in manufacturing in addition to the temporary foreign workers used in fish plants and agricultural harvesting.

Addressing the high unemployment/immigration paradox

For 150 years, the excuse given for the lack of immigration into Atlantic Canada has been the lack of need.   The region’s economy has not created a level of activity that would have required a heavy flow of immigrants.

That same argument is made even today.    After all, the region has unemployment levels well above the national average and it has a significant seasonal employment challenge.    The 2012 Employment Insurance reforms were made to encourage frequent users of the Employment Insurance program to find permanent, year round work.   Anyone classified as a frequent claimant will be required to take employment outside their field of expertise and at as low as 70 percent of the previous wage level or they will be cut off the program[2].

According to a recent report, over 150,000 Atlantic Canadians are frequent claimants of the EI program – or 11.7 percent of everyone that claimed employment income in 2010.  In Newfoundland and Labrador, almost two out of every five workers in 2010 was a frequent claimant.   Shouldn’t we put all our efforts into ensuring that any available jobs be reserved for these people rather than giving them to new immigrants?

This is a complex question with no easy answers.  Some government officials and community leaders worry that some employers are using immigrant workers as an easy alternative to the much harder effort to address structural labour market problems.

From the employers’ perspective, forcing them to take on local workers without the skills or motivation to work the jobs may harm productivity and ultimately regional competitiveness.   There is increasing anecdotal evidence that immigrant workers are strengthening the competitiveness of a number of the region’s manufacturing firms.

In addition, the vast majority of frequent EI claimants are located in the region’s rural areas.  Because the new rules do not require people to move out of their communities, Atlantic Canada’s urban labour market requirements need to be addressed separately.

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Fully embracing immigration

After spending 20 years studying economic and demographic trends in Atlantic Canada, I believe a lack of immigration into the Maritime Provinces has been a cause (not an effect) of our weak economic performance throughout the 20th Century.

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An immigrant boom into Atlantic Canada will bring new talent, ideas and investment.   There are some who worry about upsetting the ‘delicate cultural balance’ in the region.  Not only am I not worried about this, my stated goal is to upset this delicate cultural balance.

It is true that when multiple cultures collide, there will always some friction.  But this friction also creates new energy and dynamism.  For the most part, Canada is a best practice example for immigrant integration and inclusion and there is no reason Atlantic Canada can’t have the same results.

If we want Atlantic Canada to be prosperous and if we want our governments to be able to pay for our cherished public services, we will need to see a substantial increase in the number of immigrants to the region in the coming years.

I welcome this with open arms.


[1] Source: New Brunswick’s Population Growth Strategy in Historical Perspective (2008).

[2] They will not be forced to move outside their community to find work.

**David Campbell is located in New Brunswick, and he writes about economic development in Atlantic Canada on his blog “It’s The Economy, Stupid.” Check out his other work at: http://davidwcampbell.com/. As part of our guest blogging series, we invited David to join the conversation about one of the key themes. Keep your eyes open for more guest blog posts about the other key themes!

2 thoughts on “Immigration to Atlantic Canada: 150 years overdue but better late than never

  1. Only issue is that Bathurst and area has as many or more Irish Immigrants, if not more in the early 19th century.

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