Normally the announcement of billions in federal cash flowing into a community would be cause for unbridled optimism. But in Nova Scotia, the $25-billion contract to build combat ships at the Halifax Shipyard has instead raised the spectre of an old immigration scandal and strained relations between the province and Ottawa. Nova Scotia hopes the shipbuilding windfall will help it lure new immigrants to revive its hobbled workforce, while Ottawa no longer seems to trust the province to run its own immigration system.
The dispute stems from the provincial nominee program, a federal program which is designed to let each province pick at least some of its own immigrants. Under this program during the mid-2000s, Nova Scotia required immigrants to fork over $100,000 to local businesses in exchange for management-level “mentorship” training that was supposed to lead to full-time work. Roughly 900 immigrants complied, but many ended up unemployed or working at car dealerships, fish stands and laundromats, with thousands in fees pocketed by local businesses and consultants. Not surprisingly, about two-thirds of those immigrants left the province in search of jobs elsewhere.
Nova Scotia axed that aspect of its immigration program in 2006, and overhauled its rules to focus on attracting skilled workers and graduate students rather than those willing to pay cash for entry. But the changes haven’t swayed the federal government, which has refused to give Nova Scotia more spaces in the provincial nominee program, even as it raises its cap for Western provinces. In Manitoba, the program draws more than 12,000 immigrants every year, but for the past three years Ottawa has limited Nova Scotia’s share to just 500. Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has aired his displeasure with how all the Atlantic provinces handled their immigration systems, telling one newspaper last year, “We are not going to continue with the rate of growth in the program over the past few years until we’re able to sit down with the provinces and make sure our concerns are addressed.”
That’s irked officials, who say despite ample demand to immigrate to Nova Scotia, the province is falling short of the numbers needed to take advantage of the shipbuilding contract’s economic spinoffs. “We have a federal government that thinks we have an immigration program which is still stained by the way it was run in the past,” says Liberal MLA Andrew Younger.
The province predicts it may need as many as 10,000 immigrants by 2014, when the federal shipbuilding contract swings into gear, to avoid a labour shortage. Last year just 2,400 immigrants arrived in Nova Scotia, with fewer than one-quarter coming through the provincial nominee program. Without its failed immigration project, the province would likely be much closer to its target of 5,000 a year, says Elizabeth Mills, executive director of the Office of Immigration. “In that time period that we had to deal with this whole issue, we were basically paralyzed,” she says.
That delay, says Younger, could cost Nova Scotia as it tries to attract young workers. Nova Scotia has one of the oldest and most stagnant populations in Canada. The population grew by less than one per cent between 2006 and 2011. “We really need to make sure that the government and the minister understand that the scandal that plagued Nova Scotia immigration is years behind us,” he says. “We’ve moved on.”