A place to move: What eastern Ontario needs to draw — and retain — immigrants 

TVO.org speaks with immigration-services providers in Belleville, Brockville, and Kingston about the issues that should be top of mind during the federal-election campaign
By David Rockne Corrigan - Published on Oct 11, 2019
Kingston, Ontario
Newcomers often struggle to find affordable housing in Kingston, which has the lowest rental-vacancy rate in the province. (iStock.com/demerzel21)

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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. Click here to read Part 1; click here to read Part 2.

KINGSTON — More than three-quarters of the immigrants who moved to Ontario last year settled in the Greater Toronto Area. For smaller communities like Kingston, Belleville, and Brockville — cities that are already facing labour shortages — the ability to attract and employ immigrants is vital. The reality is not quite so simple.

Ruslan Yakoviychuk, the Conservative candidate for Kingston and the Islands, says he understands the challenges faced by immigrants to Canada, particularly those who struggle to find skilled work. In 2005, he was one of them. 

“I was a music teacher back home,” say Yakoviychuk, who moved to Kingston from Ukraine in 2005. “I am here as a carpenter, but my passion is music. I went to a school to see if I could teach music after-hours, and I was told no. My diploma was not recognized in Canada.”

Yakoviychuk says that there are many others like him: doctors, lawyers, and engineers, who, because of “red tape,” are unable to practise their chosen profession in this country. 

“I’ve spoken with [Conservative leader] Andrew Scheer about this,” says Yakoviychuk. “We’re going to help to make it easier for people — especially doctors — so they can go through an easier way to get qualification. We need those skilled people here in Canada.”

Josh Bennett, Liberal candidate for Leeds–Grenville–Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes, also has first-hand experience of the obstacles involved in the immigration process. His wife, who was a teacher in the United Kingdom, had to wait almost two years to gain permanent residency. Although she has a PhD in biology and seven years of teaching experience, she learned she’d have to take a year’s worth of courses to gain acceptance into the Ontario College of Teachers. 

“Eventually, we just said forget it,” says Bennett. Things worked out in the end, however: the couple settled in Brockville, and Bennett’s wife now manages biospheres across the country. “But, certainly, there were hiccups and stumbling blocks.” 

Stephanie Bell, the NDP candidate for Bay of Quinte, says it’s the government’s responsibility to recognize the priorities of immigrant groups. “It is government’s job to understand what life is truly like for immigrants and what the benefits are of having them here. And it’s candidates and leaders’ job — not just when we’re campaigning — but all the time.”

In eastern Ontario, those priorities involve everything from language services to housing. TVO.org spoke to immigration-services providers in Belleville, Brockville, and Kingston about the issues that should be top of mind during the federal campaign — and how the region can attract and retain newcomers.

Orlando Ferro, Executive Director, Quinte Immigration Services

Orlando Ferro says that one of the biggest challenges facing employers in the Belleville area is finding skilled immigrants to fill jobs.

“There is massive competition for those skilled newcomers from all over Ontario, from all those small communities that face the same challenges we do,” he says. “We try our best to put the word out through marketing campaigns, job fairs — we’ve even started liaising with organizations in the GTA that have a surplus of newcomers wishing to do a second migration to where the jobs are.”

If the government doesn’t work to address this, he says, the current labour shortage will only get worse. 

“Here in Belleville, we have a mix of agriculture and manufacturing jobs where there are labour shortages happening,” says Ferro. 

He is supportive of the Liberals’ plan to create a Municipal Nominee Program, which would allow communities, chambers of commerce, and local labour councils to sponsor up to 5,000 permanent immigrants across the country. (A similar program from the Ontario government will bring in about 7,000 permanent residents in 2019.)

Ferro gives the Liberal government under Justin Trudeau an A for its work on the immigration file since 2015, saying it has provided “quite good support in terms of settlement services.” There is now some uncertainty, he says, because a new government may take things in a different direction. He’s also concerned by what he sees as a rise in “anti-immigrant rhetoric” and says that the discourse around immigration, which has been heightened by the election, is having a negative effect on newcomers, who can be marginalized even further by it.  

“I think it is impacting smaller communities like Belleville that may not be as familiar with the realities and importance of immigration,” says Ferro. He believes that all parties should work to educate voters on the importance of immigration.

“Even just from an economic perspective, without immigration, Canada would go into stagnation,” he says.

Melissa Francis, Program Manager, St. Lawrence-Rideau Immigration Partnership

Smaller communities often lack sufficient ESL language services, says Melissa Francis of the St. Lawrence-Rideau Immigration Partnership. “In Brockville, we’re lucky to have an ESL program,” she says. “But if you work during the day, or you’re at home taking care of small children, you’re missing out on those opportunities. There are some immigrants in Gananoque who have to drive back and forth to Kingston to take language courses. There’s a gap in ESL funding.”

She, too, thinks the government and party leaders could do a better job of communicating how vital immigrants are to a functioning community.

“It’s important for the federal government — and our provincial government, for that matter — to talk the talk about welcoming communities and recognizing the benefits that immigrants bring,” says Francis, who also notes the importance of recognizing international credentials. 

She points to the recurring discussion about refugees and asylum seekers and whether those who show up at Canada’s border are “jumping the queue,” as Scheer suggested in a debate last month. (The system for processing refugee claims overseas, she notes, is separate from the system that processes asylum claims at the border.)

“Whether it’s refugees or skilled workers, it’s really important for the parties to get their facts straight,” Francis says. “We need to make decisions based on fact, not emotion.”

Wendy Vuyk, Director, Community Health, Kingston Community Health Centres

Vuyk, like other immigration-services providers, emphasizes the need to attract and retain skilled newcomers. 

“I see Canada as being on the verge of a critical labour shortage,” she says. “We need and want newcomers in our community. Kingston is such a great place to live and a lovely place to raise a family.”

Kingston’s workforce development and in-migration strategies, she says, could play an important role in bringing and keeping newcomers. But she notes that those who do get work there often face a considerable challenge finding affordable housing. The city’s rental-vacancy rate is the lowest in Ontario and among the lowest in the country. 

“I don’t want to see people come to Kingston and think, ‘Wow, it’s great. I could have a job here, but I can’t find a place to live,’” says Vuyk. “That’s not what we want.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting eastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Queen’s University.

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

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