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A long way from home

Nova Scotia is desperate for immigrants but its recruiting practices are among the worst in the country. Those who’ve tried to come here have discovered the province has few resources and many hurdles on the road to a new life.



Tucked in behind the sprawling Wal-Mart and Sears stores of the West End Mall, a little office complex is often one of the first sights greeting new immigrants to Nova Scotia. It’s also the unexpected front lines in the battle to keep them here. Today, in a classroom at the Metro Immigrant Settlement Association (MISA), about 15 new immigrants take part in a pre-employment workshop. Many take furious notes while an instructor explains how to apply for jobs in Canada. She explains the basics: cover letters, resumes and what to wear to an interview. Near the end of the session, the class stops and everyone is given a chance to introduce themselves. As they tell their stories, most in careful, heavily accented English, it is hard not to be amazed at the rich lives and careers many have given up just for the chance to start from zero in Halifax.

“I lived in my country very well,” says Fernando Naranjo, an environmental engineer in his mid-30s from Colombia. “I worked in the second most important university in Colombia. I was a professor. I was a researcher. I was writing papers.” Just over two months ago, Naranjo decided to pack up his successful life in Colombia to move to Halifax. His family and friends were astonished when he announced his decision. “Are you crazy, Fernando?” he mimics their reaction in a dramatic, high-pitched voice. “Canada is very cold. Can you imagine the winter?” He laughs. “I said to them, ‘No problem. It’s a new life. It’s a challenge.’”

A new life was appealing to Naranjo. Just four years ago his wife died and he was left a widower with no children. “That time was very heavy for me,” he says. “I felt very bad at that moment, but, no, life’s a process.” Naranjo also chose to leave Colombia because he knew his expertise as an environmental engineer would be in high demand outside his country. He thought about Australia, but considered it too far away. Then he hit upon Canada. In Colombia, he says, “Canada has a good reputation, it is very organized. The health system here is excellent.” It seemed like the perfect place to start again.

As he began his in-depth research into Canada, Naranjo found some encouraging statistics. He read in journals about the slowing Canadian population growth and discovered that Nova Scotia in particular needs to attract more immigrants. So he explained to his doubting family: “Canada needs new immigrants,” he said. “Canada needs environmental engineers. In Halifax my career, my profession, has many opportunities.”

Naranjo was right about Nova Scotia: The province is facing a population crisis. All over the province, especially in rural areas, people are leaving, and once vibrant towns are dying. An August government report, starkly illustrated by page after page of sinking line-graphs, confirms this gloomy prognosis for the future sustainability of the province’s population and economy. Nova Scotians, it shows, are still “going down the road” in increasing numbers. It reveals that there has been a consistent net population loss in the last six years, especially among 18- to 24-year-olds. And, to make matters worse, Nova Scotians are having fewer children. By 2006, it is projected that deaths will begin to outnumber births here.

Claudette Legault, MISA’s executive director, has been following the grim statistics closely. “You just look at the numbers and they are shocking, shocking, shocking,” she says. “If you’re a Nova Scotia business person, your market is shrinking, not growing.” Looking at the numbers, Legault and the recent government report have come to the same simple conclusion: “We’ve got to get people here...Without immigration we are in deep trouble.”

Immigrants, in fact, could be Nova Scotia’s saving grace. It is increasingly clear that only by attracting more immigrants can we stem our province’s dramatic population decline. So far, however, we’ve been failing miserably. Newcomers face daunting barriers and a lack of support that, more often than not, is causing them to leave the province soon after they arrive.

After two months in the country, Naranjo is beginning to realize the uphill battle he faces before he can find work in his field in Nova Scotia. Despite his years of education and experience, he was told that he must have up to two years of Canadian work experience before he can apply to become a professional engineer in Nova Scotia. For him this could mean having to take on an unpaid work internship for a year or more, without a guarantee of future employment.

For now, while still struggling to adapt to a new life in an unfamiliar country, Naranjo has taken a job as a server at the Halifax Casino. He’s also looking for volunteer engineering placements, attending intensive language classes as well as employment workshops at MISA. Although he’s a long way from a career as an engineer, he is remarkably optimistic and happy. Naranjo regularly repeats what seems to be his life philosophy: “Everyday in my life is a challenge,” he says. “You need to be patient, you need to be positive.”Even while serving drinks at the casino, Naranjo can’t help but think like an engineer. After only one shift, he has already identified ways the casino could improve its environmental management. “The casino produces much solid waste. A great quantity, day by day,” he explains excitedly. Soon, he says, he’s going to make some suggestions to the Casino on ways to improve its waste treatment.

Naranjo’s optimism is contagious. It’s hard not to share his obvious delight at finally finding work in Nova Scotia, and in his hope that the Casino will be receptive to his environmental suggestions. But it’s frustrating that someone like Naranjo can find only work at the Casino while his engineering expertise, a sought-after skill in Nova Scotia, goes untapped. It’s easy to understand why a professional like Naranjo might decide to leave the province if a job in his field, or at least greater support in finding one, could be found elsewhere.

Unfortunately for Nova Scotia, provinces like Manitoba are learning how to attract and keep skilled immigrants like Naranjo. Manitoba even has a specialized eight-month program for engineers. There, a foreign trained engineer takes classes at the University of Manitoba to ensure their skills meet Canadian standards while they work as a paid intern in their field. After the course, they receive a full Canadian engineering degree as well as work experience. No volunteering, no struggling with jobs unrelated to their expertise.

In Halifax, there are a lot of immigrants like Naranjo: ambitious, skilled workers who face an uphill battle to find work in their fields. In one employment workshop at MISA there were three participants who worked as engineers in their home countries. Joining them at the table were information technology professionals as well as businesspeople with masters degrees. MISA sees its share of doctors and lawyers too, all of them people with skills that are in high demand in Nova Scotia.

Darlene MacInnis, a training coordinator at MISA, meets a lot of these very skilled immigrants who are struggling to make a go of it in Nova Scotia. “I’ve got a client who was a general surgeon on the front lines in Afghanistan,” she says. Another new immigrant she knows is a specialist in infectious disease. Yet another was a human rights public prosecutor in Colombia. She even has worked with a couple of judges who came here as government sponsored refugees. Right now, she says, “One of them is flipping burgers.”

Although some new immigrants are willing to wait it out for the chance at a career in Nova Scotia, thousands are arriving only to leave soon after. Between 1991 and 2001 Nova Scotia retained a feeble 40 percent of its immigrants, the second worst performance in Canada, next to Newfoundland and Labrador. Our neighbour New Brunswick manages to retain 62 percent of its immigrants, while Manitoba manages to keep a whopping 78 percent. For employees at MISA, it is heartbreaking to see the tangible effects of Nova Scotia’s poor ability to retain skilled immigrants.

“There was a case of a woman who came from France,” remembers Claudette Legault. “So she speaks English and French. She had a PhD in pharmacy from the University of Sorbonne, and it was going to take her over a year before she could practice here. She was going to have to write two exams. The exams cost all kinds of money. And she just said ‘forget it.’“I don’t know if she went back or went to the States but, yeah, she didn’t stay here.”

In addition to losing over half of the immigrants who arrive here, Nova Scotia is also slipping when it comes to attracting immigrants in the first place. In the last eight years, the numbers have kept falling—from almost 4,000 new arrivals coming here in 1995, to fewer than 1,500 in 2003. One of the big reasons for this decline is that over the last 10 years, other smaller provinces in Canada have been actively recruiting immigrants, while Nova Scotia has rested on its laurels. Manitoba is one of the country’s biggest success stories. The province has gone from attracting 4,600 immigrants in 2002 to a projected 7,500 this year, and the province is aiming for a whopping 10,000 by 2006.

Gerry Clement is Manitoba’s assistant deputy minister of Labour and Immigration and, for the past seven years, one of the architects of the celebrated immigration policy. Reached by phone in his Winnipeg office on a Friday after most of his staff have already gone home, Clement proudly describes how, back in 1997, he helped “take a blank sheet of paper” and draw up the programs that have made Manitoba one of the country’s leaders in attracting and settling immigrants.

In the 1990s, Manitoba realized immigration was no longer just an issue for big cities and big provinces. They decided to commit significant government funding and resources to promoting immigration and settlement. As Clement explains, the province wanted everyone to know immigration had become a “viable and important public policy area, not hide the fact that people are coming. We’re out there encouraging it.”

To prove it was serious about immigration, Manitoba devoted 47 staff members and a $15 million a year budget to immigrant services. The department now provides not just promotion, but also initial orientations for newcomers, with comprehensive language programs and services to help new immigrants integrate into the labour force. As Clement notes, sounding as if it should be self-evident, “Not only do we attract them but once they get here we have the responsibility to settle them—based on the individual’s needs, where they’re coming from and how they’re getting here.”

Compared to Manitoba, Nova Scotia is embarrassingly behind the game. Manitoba provides 47 immigration staff; Nova Scotia has three. We have no dedicated immigration department. And we devote a measly $500,000 per year to immigration.

One of Manitoba’s most successful initiatives has been its provincial nominee program, which allows the province to actively identify and recruit individuals it believes will benefit the province. Instead of leaving the decisions on who is allowed into Canada solely in the hands of the federal government, through the nominee program the province can pick and choose immigrants who are most likely to thrive in Manitoba. This way, the province can weed out immigrants who are obviously not going to stay and contribute to the province.

“We’re looking for people who want to come here,” says Clement. “If you tell us that all your relatives are living in Toronto we probably won’t accept you under the program. has been the key for us to be able to promote, attract and select individuals who are destined toward different areas of our labour market.” In 2003, Nova Scotia adopted a similar nominee program. However, it has only allowed a trickle of 200 immigrants a year to settle here, while Manitoba’s program brings in over 1,500, a number which it plans to see grow this year.

Clement is a believer; he’s seen how increased immigration can help transform a province for the better. “From an economic perspective, our growth projection in terms of GDP continues to be the best in Canada. Our employment participation rates continue to be amongst the highest,” he says. He’s seen rural communities revitalized by new immigration, to the point of having to build new schools because of the increasing population. “In small communities one carpenter can create a lot of opportunities,” he explains. “People attract other people. That has been the basis for our successes.”

“Man, they are way ahead of us,” says Claudette Legault of Manitoba’s immigration initiatives. “If Nova Scotia wants a part of that pie, it’s got to take seriously.” That means more provincial money towards both marketing Nova Scotia as an immigrant destination, and greater support services for immigrants that arrive here.

Waldemar Knorr is the kind of immigrant smaller provinces like Manitoba are fighting to attract. In April, Waldemar along with his partner Olga and their three kids arrived in Canada from Germany. Back home, Waldemar was an experienced IT specialist, working as a network administrator at an international airport.

Olga offers me tea in the sparsely furnished living room of the family’s temporary home on a narrow street off St Margaret’s Bay Road. Pinned on the wall beside their dining room table is a large roadmap of Halifax. In Germany, when Waldemar was trying to decide where to bring his family, the little province of Nova Scotia intrigued him. He and Olga don’t like big cities, so Nova Scotia seemed perfect. So, he says, “I tried to make contact from Europe to Nova Scotia immigration.” To his surprise, he received no reply. “That’s sad,” he says. “Not even an answer.” He opted instead for Manitoba. As an IT man, Waldemar was impressed with the “much more information” he found on Manitoba’s website, and the special programs they offered him as a newcomer.

After arriving in western Canada in April, Waldemar decided to take his family on a cross-country road trip. After seeing all of Canada for themselves, they finally opted to make Nova Scotia their new home. In his opinion, Nova Scotia needs to market itself better to new immigrants—not just internationally, but also to the rest of Canada. “Just inform people about what Nova Scotia has to offer,” he says. “Online you hear almost nothing about Nova Scotia.” To make matters worse, when he arrived in western Canada people told him that in Nova Scotia it was “always raining,” and that “there is nothing to do here. No jobs. are all unemployed.”

Despite low expectations for Nova Scotia, Waldemar and his family immediately fell in love with Halifax. “We are not comfortable in big cites,” he explains. “Nova Scotia is much more like Europe.” He is also impressed with how welcoming people have been. After only a month here, he tells me, a neighbour knocked on his door. “‘Hi Waldemar, how are you doing?’” he says. “‘I am going fishing. Do you want to come?’ Caught a mackerel.”

It is only recently that the Nova Scotia government has finally taken some action to address the problem of declining immigration numbers. Last December, they appointed Ron Heisler, formerly an operations director for Citizenship and Immigration Canada, to draft a comprehensive immigration strategy for the province. Heisler is stout, straight talking and thoroughly un-bureaucratic. He describes himself as a “roll up your sleeves” type, used to dealing with high-stakes immigration emergencies like the planes that were diverted here after September 11, ship stowaways, or airlifts of Kosovar refugees. Outside his office, an inspirational poster proclaims, “People who attempt the difficult often attain the impossible.”

For Heisler, being given the job of researching and authoring a provincial government report on immigration was, he says bluntly, “not my usual forte.” However, the Hamm government’s choice of the no-bullshit Heisler to lead their new immigration initiative seems to be a sign that the province is finally serious about making immigration a priority.

Heisler and other staff at the Ministry of Education have produced a lengthy preliminary report called “A Framework for Immigration,” which presents why Nova Scotia needs to attract more immigrants. Since it was released last August, Heisler has been in his element, feeling “invigorated,” touring his document around the province trying to convince people in open forums why immigration is vital to Nova Scotia’s future. From rural Cape Breton to urban Halifax, Heisler has been preaching his mantra, that “The status quo isn’t good enough anymore,” and that “we have to do a better job of promoting the province as an immigrant destination.”

Like a good politician or salesman, after establishing the problem, Heisler delivers a well-rehearsed, four-pronged solution: “We have to attract properly, you have to integrate properly, which will lead to retention, you need a welcoming community.” If all this works, he says, immigrants will “contribute to the economic well-being of the province.” For Heisler, our province’s pitiful funding of immigration initiatives is something that will definitely need to change if we are to stay competitive nationally and internationally. “If you don’t put any seeds in the ground you won’t harvest any crops,” he says.

However, not everyone buys into the metaphor. Heisler has encountered his share of resistance to the pro-immigration message around the province, especially from those regions in the midst of economic and demographic decline. There are a few misconceptions about immigration that he hears again and again. On one hand, people tell him “immigrants take jobs away from people,” and then, sometimes in the same breath, they complain that “they’re all on welfare.” Heisler pauses to allow the contradiction to sink in. “And I say, ‘Well, what is it, one or the other?’”

And then he hits you with the figures. “Immigrants receive less of their income on government assistance than native-born Nova Scotians,” he says. “They create employment, they have higher levels of entrepreneurship, they have higher levels of education—so you have to say to yourself, ‘that makes pretty good sense.’” After he finishes his cross-province tour and has received feedback about the immigration framework, Heisler and his team will draft an immigration strategy for the province, which will then be in the hands of the provincial government to implement. Early indications are that Heisler’s work has been paying off. Last Monday, premier Hamm announced that, like Manitoba, Nova Scotia is creating a dedicated immigration department, a recommendation that figures prominently in Heisler’s plan.

As the weather begins to get cold, I meet Fernando Naranjo again in a quiet diner on a Saturday morning in Dartmouth. Decked out in his jogging outfit of bright yellow shorts and a white t-shirt, he says he’s just finished his regular run across the Macdonald Bridge, through the city and back. He’s adapting well to life in Halifax. He says enthusiastically that he’s discovered CBC radio, which he listens to every night. “I am very happy when I put on my headphones,” he says.

He’s also excited about the changing seasons and the prospect of snow, which he has never before experienced. “The season fall is beautiful,” he says. “The trees have a different colour—reddish colours, gold, brown. It’s good.” Naranjo tells me he’s writing an essay about the Halifax Harbour cleanup, a topic he’s planning to discuss with his language teacher. It’s clear, he says optimistically, that “the harbour needs environmental engineers.” And, unlike a lot of immigrants who struggle here for a while before leaving for greater opportunities elsewhere, Naranjo seems to be in Nova Scotia for the long haul. “For me Nova Scotia is great,” he says. And he explains that he’s willing to move anywhere in the province to find work. “If I get a job in Cape Breton, why not in Cape Breton? If I get a job in Yarmouth, I am going to Yarmouth. I am very happy for future prospects.” After we finish, Naranjo insists on paying for the coffee, leaves a 200 percent tip on the table and thanks me profusely for my time.

Back at MISA, Claudette Legault walks past cubicles, bulletin boards with information on upcoming cultural events and meeting rooms full of people. She peeks through a slightly open door. It is yet another class full of new immigrants.

She turns back to me and whispers conspiratorially, with the air of having unearthed a great treasure, “We do have them,” she says. “There they are. Now let’s get them to stay.”

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