Northern Ontario’s francophone labour shortage

The region’s francophone senior population is among the fastest-growing in the province — and critics say not enough is being done to attract French-speaking migrants
By Clara Pasieka - Published on Jan 06, 2020
Researchers say that, by 2026, about 34 per cent of future in-migrants to Greater Sudbury will need to be French-speaking to maintain a core workforce that can serve the local French community. (Francis Vachon/CP)

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Endi Kodila arrived in northern Ontario from the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2015 and has since risen to become the director of a rehabilitation home. He’s educated, skilled, and building a new life in Kapuskasing, a francophone-dominated town of 8,500. But if the town is to address a worsening labour shortage, it’s going to need many more newcomers like Kodila.

Northern Ontario’s francophone senior population is among the fastest-growing in the province, and youth are leaving. This has created strong demand for French speakers, such as Kodila, to support an aging francophone population in a variety of roles, from personal-support workers to general labourers. While some observers are hopeful about new federal initiatives, there are concerns that not enough is being done to attract these sought-after international migrants.

Francophone-immigration targets are one answer for northern Ontario, and a new study outlines the extent of the need. By 2026, approximately 34 per cent of future in-migrants to Greater Sudbury, the region’s most populous area, will need to be French-speaking to maintain a core workforce that can serve the local French community, say researchers for the Northern Policy Institute and Reseau du Nord. Yet over the last five years, French-speaking immigrants to the region have amounted to just under 17 per cent. “The research shows that we need to act now,” says Thomas Mercier, director of Reseau du Nord.

The federal government has included Sudbury, and four other northern cities, in a pilot program. Launched in summer 2019, the Rural and Northern Immigration Pilot is aimed at increasing economic immigration to these communities by creating a path to permanent residence for skilled foreign workers. Each of the northern pilot cities — North Bay, Timmins, Sault Ste. Marie, Thunder Bay, and Sudbury — has formed a community-steering committee to create systems that will attract candidates to address unique local needs. Under a separate federal initiative, Welcoming Francophone Communities, ​​​​​​​14 communities, including Sudbury, will share $12.6 million (over three years) for projects aimed at making francophone newcomers feel welcome.

For his part, Ontario labour minister Monte McNaughton says, “My approach is not going to be a one-size-fits-all solution but actually working with specific industries and specific regions to ensure that these jobs can be filled.”

As it stands, northern Ontario’s shortage is so severe that existing employers can suffer irreparable harm when a new company comes to town — even if it’s in a different industry. A bilingual phone centre in Capreol, a small community in Greater Sudbury, was shuttered a few years ago after a mine opened and scooped up many of its workers, says Nickel Belt MPP France Gélinas. Meanwhile, sawmills in Atikokan and Ignace can’t run third shifts due to the labour shortage, says Mushkegowuk–James Bay MPP Guy Bourgouin.

Kapuskasing councillor Sébastien Lessard says that, although businesses recruit privately — the education sector, for example, conducts outreach with foreign students — additional government involvement is required. Mercier, who also serves as coordinator of the Northern Ontario Francophone Immigration Support Network, suggests that trade and economic-development missions need to focus more on francophone regions in Africa.

Gélinas says that establishing a passport office in the region would help. “As long as we don’t have the federal resources to support immigration — a passport office and a visa office — nothing the province does will make a big difference.” Temporary workers in her riding, she notes, have to drive four hours to Toronto to reach a passport or visa office if there is a problem.

Caroline Mulroney, Ontario’s francophone-affairs minister, says that Ottawa should have accepted the province’s request for more economic immigrants under the Ontario Immigrant Nominee Program: “Ontario requested 1,000 additional nominations, and the federal government only permitted 50, well below what was requested.” Mulroney says that 7.7 per cent of the Ontario nominees were French-speaking in 2018, compared to 4.8 per cent in 2017.

It’s not unusual for a province to request more spaces than can be met by the Provincial Nominee Programs. In addition to consulting with the provinces, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada also considers the capacity of settlement organizations and long-term demographic trends. IRCC spokesperson Mathieu Genest says that adjustments to economic-immigration streams to encourage more francophone newcomers have already resulted in a doubling of the number of francophone economic immigrants to Canada. And, he says, “the Municipal Nominee Program announced in the electoral platform will help enhance the ability of communities to seek out the talent they need to help their economy grow.”

According to Vic Fedeli, Ontario’s minister of economic development, job creation and trade, this past June, Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government “expanded the [Ontario Immigrant Nominee] program to include two areas that were drastically missing in northern Ontario — truck drivers and PSWs.” And, last month, it released a Regional Immigration Pilot of its own for rural Ontario. While no northern Ontario communities were included, Cornwall was chosen for its francophone needs. “Outcomes from the pilot will help inform further efforts to regionalize economic immigration in Ontario,” the ministry says.

Fedeli, himself a lifelong northerner, says that the government has committed to putting a “northern lens” on the decision-making process. However, Mulroney says that her ministry plans to hold its annual francophone-immigration target at 5 per cent for the time being. But Mercier notes that northern Ontario has a francophone population of over 20 per cent, so different official regional targets for francophone immigration are needed just to maintain current demographic levels. That has been a strength, says Mercier, of the community-led goal-setting supported by new federal programs.

As for Kodila, he loves northern Ontario and the opportunities it has given him. When asked what he likes about living in the region, he says, “Les personnes qui sont ici, des personnes chaleureuses” — the warm people.

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