Published in the Telegraph-Journal 7th May 2013
The shortage of skilled labour in the Alberta oil sands has become a vexing issue that today is emblematic of our thinking about how Canada can maintain its prosperity in the 21st century. A similar lack of labour exists across the country. The Conference Board of Canada has forecast that within 10 years, there will be a shortage of more than a million workers across Canada. This shortage is a serious risk to our potential to compete into the future.
In Atlantic Canada, a third of the population will be over 65 in less than two decades. In the absence of Atlantic Canadians suddenly having radically larger families, the region will need to dramatically increase its immigration levels in order to compensate for the steady out-migration that continues to characterize the region. Even promising growth in some industries, in ship building in Nova Scotia and oil and gas finds in Newfoundland and Labrador, has not stemmed the flow of young people from the Atlantic provinces to the West.
For New Brunswick, the great challenge for the 21st century will be to find and attract the people we need to rebuild our economy and way of life. To achieve this, we will need to provide immigrants with real opportunities. We will need to embrace the ways they will reshape this province and integrate them into our communities.
The solution would appear straightforward enough: simply open New Brunswick’s borders to immigrants and wait for people from other countries to populate the province. The reality is more complex.
To grow our population and maintain our standard of living, we will need to welcome thousands of immigrants, a far larger number than are attracted to the province today. To compete with the magnetic pull of cities such as Toronto, Montreal, Calgary and Vancouver, New Brunswick communities must grow substantially and sustainably. Immigration is not a panacea, but ignoring immigration and its attendant diversity, as well as its beneficial effects on trade, innovation and international networks, is not an option. We need to realize that an essential and defining part of New Brunswick’s identity and brand must be that the province is recognized as an open and welcoming society.
Enormous transformation will be necessary for New Brunswick to achieve economic success in the near and medium term. Radical alterations in immigration policy — and the dramatic demographic changes that will be brought about by the large-scale arrival of immigrants to this province — will not come without wrenching dislocation.
In her 1961 classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, urban activist Jane Jacobs argued that “economic development, no matter when or where it occurs, is profoundly subversive of the status quo.” This is a succinct explanation for the failure of many policies and programs that generate and support economic development and why they are not implemented. New rules of the game can be an inherent threat to those that benefit from the status quo.
This argument has it that the real preference of those with entrenched influence in many cases is the maintenance of the status quo rather than disruptive economic development. It is also an explanation for why there is so much public obsessing over labour shortages, lack of innovation and shortfalls in investment, but relatively less discussion of the more radical approach that substantial increases of immigration would represent.
Currently, the issue is largely moot. While the imperative to stabilize New Brunswick’s population is real enough, there are substantial challenges associated with keeping immigrants in this province. Attracting skilled workers is one obstacle to be overcome but retaining them is another. New Brunswick first needs to be viewed by the world not as a second-class destination but as a place of opportunity equal to Ontario, Alberta and Saskatchewan.