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Provinces demand more control over immigration to combat labor shortage

Citing a nationwide labor shortage, several provincial immigration ministers say they want more control over the immigration process, and have sent a letter to their federal counterpart calling for change.

Ministers from Ontario, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba are calling on Sean Fraser, Canada’s minister of immigration, refugees and citizenship, to allow their provinces to select more immigrants “with the skills they need most” in a letter sent Tuesday night.

“We need the ability to respond to the rapidly evolving needs of specific areas and communities, with a flexible system that we can adapt to changing economic and humanitarian needs,” the letter states.

Ahead of a meeting with Fraser and their fellow immigration ministers in Saint John, NB, they say Canada needs to do more to attract and retain workers — particularly in skilled trades. They say provinces should be allowed to recruit workers and offer them good local jobs.

The letter says provinces know their local economies best, and can choose newcomers to Canada who have “the greatest chance of success.”

“We are facing a global race for talent as people all around the world search for a better place to build a life for themselves and their families.”

Of the 198,085 people who immigrated to Ontario last year, the province was allowed to select 9,000— about 4.5 per cent— through the Ontario Immigrant Nominee Program, which “recognizes and nominates people for permanent residence who have the skills and experience the Ontario economy needs ,” according to the ministry.

Monte McNaughton, Ontario’s minister of labour, immigration, training and skills development, told CBC Toronto the province wanted the federal government to double its allocation to select 18,000 skilled immigrants of the 211,000 coming to Ontario this year.

It was given an increase of 700.

According to data supplied by the Ontario labor ministry, most of the four provinces with the highest immigration numbers in 2021 had similarly low percentages of immigrants they were allowed to select. Alberta was allocated 15 per cent of its 39,950 immigrants, and British Columbia 9.3 per cent of its 69,270 newcomers.

The only exception was Quebec, which selected 55.8 per cent of its 50,170 immigrants.

McNaughton said other provincial ministers “are in the same boat” when it comes to labor shortages, but that the most serious challenge is in Ontario, where 378,000 jobs are going unfilled. He said the province is focused on two sectors: health care and skilled trades.

“So it makes more sense for the provinces — in particular Ontario — to have a say in the skilled immigrants that we need to fill these jobs,” he said.

Several pathways to permanent residence

In June, Fraser announced that the federal government was working on creating a faster pathway for temporary workers to obtain permanent resident status.

For eight months during COVID-19 restrictions last year, the federal government gave 90,000 essential workers, front-line health-care workers and international students an accelerated path to permanent residence.

The federal government offers several pathways to permanent residence that are usually designed to attract and retain skilled labour. One example is the Atlantic Immigration Program for skilled workers and international graduates from Canadian schools who want to live in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, PEI, or Newfoundland and Labrador.

The program was piloted in 2017 and became permanent this year.

Nova Scotia was able to welcome more than 1,500 more immigrants this year through the Atlantic Immigration Program and its provincial nominee program. However, it’s still facing a labor shortage in the skilled trades.

Ahead of a meeting with federal Immigration Minister Sean Fraser, several of his provincial counterparts say Canada needs to do more to attract and retain skilled workers. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

McNaughton said Ontario is processing applications under the Ontario Immigrant Nominee Program within 90 days, compared to the federal government taking up to 42 months in some cases. He also said the province was the first to recognize international credentials for certain professions.

“So if you’re an engineer, if you’re an architect, or if you’re in the skilled trades, we’ve now eliminated the Canadian work experience and really simplified the language testing requirements,” he said.

“So we want to ensure that the new Canadians that are here in Ontario already are working in fields that they’ve studied.”

McNaughton said Ontario wants to ensure its filling the skills gap in the province, while still supporting immigrants who come through other streams, such as family reunification or as refugees.

“Immigration is not a silver bullet, but it is a key part of the solution to filling labor shortages.”

McNaughton said the labor shortage is contributing to Canadians’ high cost of living. He pointed to a “looming crisis,” with one in three people in the trades being over the age of 55.

“I think this is the greatest economic challenge that we face as a province and as a country.”

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