A place to move: Southwestern Ontario needs more immigrants, but they have nowhere to stay

Huron County is short more than 1,000 workers. But immigrants who move there to build new lives — and find new jobs — can’t always find a permanent home
By Mary Baxter - Published on Oct 09, 2019
Khawla Al Sajer and her five children at their home in Goderich. (Mary Baxter)

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Every week until the 2019 Canadian election, TVO.org will look at the federal issues that matter to Ontarians. This week, we tackle immigration in a three-part series. Watch for Part 2 on Thursday.

GODERICH — Khawla Al Sajer and her five children moved from Mississauga to Goderich in 2017 looking for a fresh start. The recently widowed Syrian refugee had arrived in Canada roughly a year earlier via Lebanon.

Al Sajer, 34, wanted to live close to family who had already settled in the small Lake Huron shoreline community and to get a job. Most of all, though, she wanted to find affordable housing, as Mississauga rents had been too high. “I don't have … money for that,” she says.

Housing proved to be her toughest challenge. The uninsulated cottage she rented in Bayfield, a summer community south of Goderich, was fine until winter, but then it got too cold. The family spent the next 16 months in a women’s shelter in Goderich; then they found their current rental, a two-bedroom townhouse, at $1,250 a month. “My kids, they are angry,” says Al Sajer of the shelter experience. Her brothers, who had also settled in Goderich, weren’t allowed to visit because of the shelter’s rules. “My kids say, ‘This is jail and not [a] house.’”

A lack of affordable housing is just one of the challenges facing employers and municipalities in rural southwestern Ontario who are trying to address a regional labour shortage by attracting recently landed immigrants such as Al Sajer.

Since launching a rural-employment initiative in 2015, the Newcomer Centre of Peel has been working with counties, including Huron, to match skilled and semi-skilled newcomers to the GTA — where 77 percent of the province’s immigrants land — with the right jobs. Yet, to date, project coordinator Oliver Pryce estimates, only 90 people, including workers and their families, have been placed. Part of the problem, he says, is that many immigrants have professional experience that simply isn’t a match for the kinds of jobs typically posted in rural areas.

“When we do regional [outreach], I would see perhaps 70 to 80 per cent of the jobs that are presented to us [in rural areas] are not for the professional groups,” Pryce explains. “They are more on the manufacturing side.” He notes that newcomers often view rural areas of Canada as similar to infrastructure-poor areas in developing countries.

Mariana Gamez and Roy Alvarez, who emigrated from Mexico City this year with their three children, have already perceived a gap between their qualifications and available jobs. Both are happy to have found employment so quickly in Seaforth, Huron County, but they are underemployed. Alvarez, a large-animal veterinarian, is a swine technician at a local pig farm, while Gamez, a psychologist, works evenings at a grocery store.

“Sometimes this is hard, because you spend all this time studying back home ... and then because your university is not accredited internationally [and you don’t have the knowledge of practising in English] … it’s harder for you to qualify,” says Gamez. “For any newcomer, [this] would be like their major [challenge].”

Huron County is short more than 1,000 workers, according to its economic-development department. ”We don't have that population growth to match the need [for workers],” says Gemma Mendez-Smith, executive director of the Four County Labour Market Planning Board, which covers the economic region that includes Huron County.

Some local business owners are taking creative approaches in order to fill vacant positions with recent arrivals — and keep them there. Roger Faulkner, owner of General Coach, a company in Hensall that custom manufactures recreational vehicles, hired 14 Syrian refugees to help expand his company and meet growing demand. Now, he and two other local manufacturers are speaking with the Municipality of Bluewater about potentially partnering to build homes for newcomers. “There’s 400 families that we need to keep here,” says Faulkner, who sits on a Huron County committee that’s currently looking at how to find housing for workers. “If there is nowhere for them to live, we’ll lose them.”

One issue contributing to the rural housing crunch is a dearth of purpose-built rental housing. “Historically, we have a small percentage of rental properties as compared to urban centres, and that is a barrier because most people who are relatively new to Canada are looking to rent, not purchase straight away,” says Kristin Crane, coordinator of the Huron County Local Immigration Partnership, a coalition of 25 groups and organizations that helps attract and support newcomers. “There's virtually no vacancy rate for rentals, but, to top that off, there is a very low number of properties for sale.”

John Nater, the Conservative incumbent MP for nearby Perth–Wellington, says that his party would change the mortgage stress test and consider releasing federal land for housing development. “But one of the more important things at the local level is making sure that the flexibility [is there] in terms of federal funding for things like housing,” he adds, noting that policy should allow for smaller projects in rural areas.

Tony McQuail, NDP candidate for Huron–Bruce, has first-hand experience of this particular housing issue: he has found it difficult to retain employees at his farm. He says that his party would introduce rental subsidies and build 500,000 new units across Canada, some of which would be in rural areas. “We're also discussing the need to invest in rural communities and in rural Ontario, providing infrastructure and support and working with the communities to identify what they need,” he says.

Allan Thompson, Liberal candidate for Huron–Bruce, says that he would like to have seen his area included in the federal government’s Rural and Northern Immigration Pilot. Launched in January and still in the early stages, the pilot aims to match newcomers to Canada with jobs outside urban centres in order to help address labour shortages in rural and remote areas. “This is such an identified need [here],” he says.

“The lack of housing — affordable housing — for everyone in rural communities is just really, really critical,” he says. “When you go knocking on doors in an election campaign, you hear it over and over again.” 

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting southwestern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of faculty and students from Western University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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