Ontario needs a regional immigration strategy, new report suggests

TORONTO — Ontario’s small communities could benefit from the influx of immigrants that are disproportionately settling in the Greater Toronto Area, a new report said Thursday as it urged all levels of government to address the imbalance.

The study from the Conference Board of Canada said the number of newcomers settling in Ontario last year starkly illustrates the disparity between the GTA and the rest of the province, noting the current settlement levels have potential to strain the resources of the provincial capital while preventing other regions from reaping rich economic rewards.

The report found that 106,000 immigrants settled in and around Toronto in 2018, representing 77 per cent of all new arrivals in the province. That figure eclipsed the total number of immigrants who landed in all four Atlantic provinces, Quebec, Manitoba and Saskatchewan combined, it said. This left the remaining 23 per cent of newcomers to spread out over the rest of the province, much of which the board argued is in need of new arrivals to fuel the local economy.

Board chief economist Pedro Antunes said Ontario’s low unemployment rate suggests a particularly tight labour market, a trend that also applies to the country as a whole.

Ontario Legislative Building

“We know as we go forward that without immigration we’d actually see a flatline on the total number of workers in Canada,” Antunes said in a telephone interview. “That would be a very dire picture in terms of being able to support economic growth.”

Those market conditions are exacerbated by factors such as a low birth rate, an aging workforce and high levels of departures from some communities, the report found.

Antunes said economic growth is what will allow provinces to generate revenues, which in turn help pay for key services such as health care and education. Failure to sustain or grow those revenues, he said, should raise serious concerns for all residents.

The report also said a look at the province’s projected dependency ratio, or proportion of people in the workforce to those outside it, also emphasizes the need to ease pressure on the labour market.

Ontario’s current ratio of 62 dependents to 100 workers is projected to rise to 79 to 100 by 2040, the report said.

That forecasted ratio, Antunes said, makes it all the more important to have enough workers to power the province’s economic engines.

Antunes said it’s easy to understand why immigrants are drawn to the GTA, noting the combination of job opportunities, support programs and existing communities of newcomers give the region considerable appeal. The GTA is feeling the economic benefits of the influx of immigrants, but the trend comes with risks as well, he said.

The report said the steady stream of new arrivals has potential to tax the region’s social supports and existing infrastructure, including everything from public transportation to appropriate housing.

The board argued all levels of government have a role to play in evening out the distribution of Ontario’s immigrants, but argued the province wields one of the most potentially powerful tools.

The report called for Ontario to refine its Immigrant Nominee Program, the official channel through which immigrants and international students can apply for permanent residency. One suggested a tweak to the program involves setting a hard target for the number of newcomers settling in communities outside the GTA.

Ontario’s Ministry of Economic Development says it’s taken steps to improve the program, including expanding the list of eligible occupations and launching a pilot program with local communities.

“Over the term of the pilot the government would work closely with local stakeholders to support their efforts to retain and attract skilled labour to their communities,” it said in a statement. “The lessons learned from the pilot could inform future program changes to help further regionalize immigration in Ontario.”

Antunes said changes to the nominee program should be part of a broader immigration strategy, another one of the five recommendations laid out in the report.

Another involves encouraging smaller communities to be more proactive in marketing themselves as attractive destinations for newcomers, something Antunes said some municipalities have done in recent years with only limited success.

At least one small Ontario city saw immigrant recruitment become a factor in its most recent municipal election.

North Bay, Ont., Mayor Al McDonald said his 2018 campaign included a wish to attract 10,000 newcomers to the city over the next decade, citing an ongoing scarcity of local workers.

McDonald said the city averages a shortage of about 400 workers every month, adding North Bay would be delighted to welcome even a small fraction of those who settled in the GTA.

“You can imagine if we could just get one per cent of those people to move to North Bay we’d be successful,” he said.

Antunes said the board also recommends increased public education about the benefits of economic migration, acknowledging a rise in anti−immigrant sentiment in recent years that promises to surface during the pending federal election campaign.

“These are political questions, and I think that we as citizens need to make our own minds about this, but they should be informed about what are the facts, about what are the numbers,” he said. “Certainly Canadians tend to be very accepting in general about economic migrants. They understand the reality of our labour market and the needs for growth.”

Michelle McQuigge, The Canadian Press