by Our National Correspondent
Dr. Alaa Abd-El-Aziz, President and Vice-Chancellor, University of Prince Edward Island (UPEI) was appointed Chair of the Association of Atlantic Universities (AAU) earlier this month. New Canadian Media conducted an interview with him by e-mail.
Q: You obviously bring a strong international outlook to the new position given your own early background and education in Egypt. How do you think your immigrant background will help as Chair of the Association of Atlantic Universities (AAU)?
A: Together the presidents of Atlantic Canadian universities share a diverse range of experience and we are stronger because of it. Having been an international student that immigrated to Canada, I would not claim to understand the needs and hopes of all international students. Everyone’s experience is unique, but that does not prevent me from drawing on my experience when I approach an issue.
I believe the key to success for both international and Canadian students stems from good relationships. At the University of Prince Edward Island, we strive to keep this at the core of everything we do, and it is emphasized during new student orientation and mental health and well-being initiatives. Interactions with friends, family, professors, staff, employers, and strangers affect our day-to-day lives, and building good relationships with these people can make all the difference.
International students will almost always have smaller networks of people in their lives so providing those services and opportunities to build those relationships when they come to Canada is key.
Q: As you say in your news release, foreign students are a particular focus. How do you think the current population of international students is fitting into Atlantic campuses? Are they contributing to the overall campus experience or do they tend to keep to themselves?
A: The culture of Atlantic Canadian universities is one in which the larger community and the campus are integral to one another. The cultural and social influences of students and their communities impact each other positively and benefit the overall experiences and success of everyone.
International students play a very important role on Canadian campuses as they are ambassadors for their respective countries. In Atlantic Canada, we strongly believe that integrating our international students into our campus communities not only benefits international students, but also Atlantic Canadian students.
Q: What does your early experience in Canada as a student/researcher tell you about what more Canada – particularly the Atlantic universities – can do to make foreign students feel more welcome? What advice do you provide to international students that you run into?
A: Canada has been, and is, welcoming to students of all cultures, and international students arrive in Canada with great appreciation for our country and its diversity. Having been an international student myself, I can say that there were many Canadians who made me feel at home by demonstrating support, kindness, and sincerity.
I personally have worked with and supervised dozens of international students and I tell them all, “In Canada you have the opportunity to be yourself, talk about your culture, interact with your community, and embrace Canadian values while enriching them with those of your own home.” This is advice that can truly help to make the best of an international student’s experience while studying in Canada.
Q: In your view, should international students have a pathway to Canadian citizenship? Would that help the Atlantic region address its demographic challenges?
A: When I think of immigration and encouraging our international students to stay and pursue citizenship, I recognize the many benefits that would have for our region. As our governments are actively working to attract talent and youth to help build our economy and society, an obvious group of people to attract would be the international students who are currently studying, researching, and honing their skills here in Atlantic Canada. In addition, I have to think about it from the point of view that even if our international students decide to return to their home country, they will forever be linked to Atlantic Canada. This too will have positive results, because if our international students are looking for opportunities to build bridges globally, there is a good chance that their first thought will be Atlantic Canada.
Q: Your time in Canada appears to have taken you to institutions from coast-to-coast. Can you please share with our readers your views on Canadian multiculturalism?
Having arrived as an international student and lived in Canada for over 30 years, I have seen many examples of how Canadians welcome, appreciate, and support the benefits of multiculturalism. We consist of people from all over the world, and yet we are probably one of the best examples of embracing differences. This makes us unique as we pour an incredibly strong foundation that embraces and respects the values of everyone.
Commentary by Peter Halpin in Halifax
Atlantic Canada could become a field of dreams for entrepreneurs, immigrants and international students.
And, if we give talented newcomers an incentive to move to the region and stay here, they will help build its economy.
Those themes were heard loud and clear at the June 24 Atlantic Leaders’ Summit on Talent Retention and Entrepreneurism, an event sponsored by the Association of Atlantic Universities (AAU) that attracted 75 business, community, government, student and academic leaders from across the region.
Federal Treasury Board President, Scott Brison, M.P. (Kings-Hants), set the tone in a keynote address that opened the Summit. Minister Brison said entrepreneurial immigrants boost the economy and help address the region’s “terrifying” demographic challenge — too few workers supporting too many retired people.
The starting-over advantage
“Starting over (as immigrants do) is inherently an entrepreneurial experience. Immigrants see opportunities that others don’t.”
The Minister said the growth of the wine industry in Nova Scotia underscores this point. The leading pioneers in Nova Scotia’s wine industry – Hans Jost (founder of Jost Vineyards) and Hanspeter Stutz (founder of Domaine de Grand Pré) - both migrated to Nova Scotia from Europe. Pete Luckett, an immigrant from the United Kingdom and founder of Luckett Vineyards, is also a leader in the sector.
Due in part to the leadership of this trio, the wine business has grown from a fledgling industry into a major success story over the past two decades. Today, Nova Scotia boasts 22 wineries, 70 grape growers who cultivate more than 800 acres of vineyards, seven distinct grape growing districts, and its own white wine appellation, Tidal Bay.
Despite the benefits that immigrants like Messrs. Luckett, Jost and Stutz have brought to the region, Brison said there is “little upside” to supporting immigration as a politician.
Too often, voters see immigration as a “zero sum game” – one in which newcomers take jobs from long-time residents.
[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Too often, voters see immigration as a “zero sum game” – one in which newcomers take jobs from long-time residents.[/quote]
Role for universities
He said universities have an important role to play as “thought leaders” in leading a “culture shift” towards “accepting and welcoming new Canadians.”
The AAU has largely succeeded at persuading stakeholders that universities are the best source of new immigrants to Atlantic Canada.
Minister Brison’s challenge “to lead the culture shift” among Atlantic Canada’s communities and citizens towards greater acceptance of new Canadians is the natural next step for the region’s universities in their support of regional population growth strategies.
Indeed, the AAU’s 2016 Graduate Retention Study showed 75 per cent of international graduates would remain in their province (of study) after graduation if given a choice.
Not that Brison is a pessimist. He says the region’s positive response to the recent influx of Syrian refugees may be a “game-changer.” He also says Atlantic universities are leveraging federal research grants to boost immigration to the region and build “a more innovative Canada.”
For instance, the Tesla lithium battery lab project led by Dr. Jeff Dahn at Dalhousie University has assembled a team of 22 researchers, 12 of whom came from other nations.
“These investments in … research are incredibly important to bringing immigrants to Canada.” They “are part of an overall integrated” strategy in which universities play a key role. “Creating a world-class research environment … is critically important to our region.”
The Trudeau government would like to attract more global talent to universities in Atlantic Canada, and keep them here once they graduate.
Ditch "Come from Away"
“Can we take a Team Atlantic Canada approach to attracting foreign students?” The Minister suggested a pan-university mission to China is one idea worth considering. The current contingent of the nearly 13,000 international students at AAU universities already represents a significant industry.
Less than two weeks after the Summit, Brison was also part of the team of federal cabinet ministers and Atlantic premiers who announced a three-year pilot project under which immigration to the region would increase significantly.
At that meeting, Minister Brison was blunt in his assessment of current attitudes toward newcomers to the region: “I have been told repeatedly by people who have moved to Atlantic Canada – that it takes a while to fit in. We’ve got to do more to welcome people here”.
Minister Brison quite rightly encourages Atlantic Canadians to ditch the “come-from-away” label often affixed to newcomers to the region. He went further by saying that, “it’s in our collective interest, economically and socially, to not use terms that reflect a negative view of people who choose to make Atlantic Canada their home. We’ve got to do more to welcome people here”.
Building on the success of attracting more and more international students to our campuses; warmly welcoming them to communities across the region; helping place them in co-op education and internships during their studies; introducing them to alumni networks and employers and encouraging them to stay are just a few of the things our universities are doing to help lead the required “culture shift” across Atlantic Canada.
Minister Brison’s call to action to our universities to help lead the creation of a more welcoming environment to newcomers has not gone unheeded.
Peter Halpin is executive director of the Association of Atlantic Universities (AAU). This comment is the second in our series on immigration to the Atlantic region.
Commentary by Robin Arthur in Halifax
Nova Scotia MP and senior federal minister, Scott Brison, has opened up a debate, suggesting the phrase “come from away” should be banned from Atlantic Canadian vocabulary. He’s on a mission to change that.
The provocative label “come from away” has been slapped on people, firstly, from other parts of Canada and secondly, on newcomers from other parts of the world converging on cities in this region. I do not necessarily see that slight as a racial slur.
Instead, I think it’s the prejudice of a rural mindset. That sort of antipathy towards strangers, I would like to think, can be found in most rural communities around the world. But what makes this difficult to stomach is the fact that a rural mindset, which seeks to distance itself from socio-economic progress, will leave Atlantic Canadians in the backwaters of Canada’s economic mainstream.
That, I believe, is Minister Brison’s wake-up call.
[quote align="center" color="#999999"][A] rural mindset, which seeks to distance itself from socio-economic progress, will leave Atlantic Canadians in the backwaters of Canada’s economic mainstream.[/quote]
In 2004, Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson ruffled feathers when he wrote his piece: “Why Atlantic Canada remains white and poor.” At the time, he cited a Statscan study which revealed that 73 per cent of all new arrivals to Canada in the preceding five years had settled in Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver.
In fact, immigration to Atlantic Canada at the time was so insignificant, he said, that the region was not even mentioned in the main body of the 73-page report. Halifax took in 2.1 per cent of newcomer arrivals and St. John's claimed a dismal 0.8 per cent.
In recent years, that demographic patina may have changed somewhat. The arrival count has bumped up. Nova Scotia’s immigration minister, Lena Diab told me some months ago that the number of arrivals under the Provincial Nominee Program (PNP) almost doubled in 2015 rising from 700 nominations in 2014 to 1350 in 2015.
But the demographic face of the region has not changed in any spectacular way. Like the rest of Atlantic Canada, the province is distinctly homogenous.
An immigration study titled Pathways to Prosperity observes: “When we examine Nova Scotia, we see a different pattern. Although there are some concentrations of immigrants from China, India, and the Philippines, especially among economic category immigrants, we see that traditional sending countries, like Britain and the USA, still play a prominent role as the sending countries of immigrants to the region.” This pattern is in striking contrast to the demographic stats unfolding in the rest of Canada.
Resistance to change
The trend, I think, is driven by a stubborn resistance to change, a commitment to “old boy networks” and a reluctance on the part of rural Atlantic Canadians to assimilate with people who are different and have “come from away”. The trend is a dangerous one for a nation seeking a vibrant economy.
That is exactly what prompted Brian Lee Crowley, former President of AIMS ( Atlantic Institute of Market Studies) to proclaim some time ago: “How we respond to the challenges of immigration, diversity and population change will literally determine whether we as a society live or die.” A dramatic statement no doubt, but no less true for that.
“Atlantic Canadians are struggling to renew their society,” he pointed out. “Indeed, governments can make a difference, but immigration is not merely an affair of governments. That is why the key question is not ‘Why don’t they come’ but rather ‘Do we really, in our hearts, want them to come.’”
When Halifax hosted the Atlantic Mayor’s Immigration Conference in 2005, that was a ground-breaking initiative, reflecting new ideas coming out of think-tanks in the country that said cities and communities have a role in developing multicultural societies for economic growth.
It is a foregone conclusion that growing immigration is a sure sign of economic and cultural dynamism. Ottawa may set the parameters for national policy, but creating the environments and infrastructure in which diversity can thrive is a job for city planners and communities.
[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Ottawa may set the parameters for national policy, but creating the environments and infrastructure in which diversity can thrive is a job for city planners and communities.[/quote]
So, it’s not really a matter of dropping the “come from away” slight from Atlantic Canada’s vocabulary. It’s the mindset that must change. Canadians in our rural towns continue to believe that Canada’s immigration program reflects its altruism and humanitarian outlook on the world, confusing the country’s commitment to the Geneva Convention on Refugees with its immigration program that’s driven to grow the economy, drive up consumption, sustain the tax base and keep its productivity competitive and vibrant.
In other words, it’s important for rural Canadians to see in Crowley’s statement an absolute truth: “How we respond to the challenges of immigration, diversity and population change will literally determine whether we as a society live or die.”
Robin Arthur is editor of Touch BASE, a monthly tabloid with a global news perspective and a voice that addresses the challenges of diversity, human rights and social justice. He is based in Halifax.
Publisher's Note: This is the first in a series of guest commentaries NCM plans to run in the coming weeks on immigration to Atlantic Canada.
by Peter Halpin
Canada’s labour market may not be showing much demand for bakers or tailors or candlestick makers, according to the CIBC report The Haves and Have Nots of Canada’s Labour Market. But, market demand remains strong for university graduates.
Indeed, university education is preferred if not essential for most of the 25 most in‐demand professions listed in the CIBC report. Skills shortages exist in numerous professions that require university education -- from engineering, architecture and auditing, to optometry, counselling and various health professions.
The CIBC report welcomes government proposals to admit 53,000 to 55,000 new Canadians this year to help meet the national skills shortage. At the same time, CIBC warns that this initiative is “simply not big enough to turn things around.”
Retaining skilled professionals
How can Atlantic Canada attract and retain skilled professionals inside what is a highly competitive market for their services?
First, we could start by looking at the thousands of international students already enrolled at Canada’s East Coast universities. New research commissioned by the Association of Atlantic Universities (AAU) shows that our international students are willing and able to help fill the region’s skills gap.
Indeed, the survey of this student cohort reveals that a majority of international students would consider staying in Canada after they graduate. Here are a few highlights from the survey, which was conducted by Corporate Research Associates:
• 33% of respondents ranked a “desire to live in Canada after graduation” as the single most important reason for their decision to attend a Canadian university.
• 76% of respondents were interested in applying for permanent residency through the federal government’s Canadian Experience Class (CEC) immigration stream.
• Academic factors were (in aggregate) the primary reasons international students cited for choosing to study at a Canadian university – with 49% referencing the quality of teaching.
Global talent pool
It is important to note that the global talent pool is growing deeper at our universities. According to the Maritime Provinces Higher Education Commission, the number of international students attending universities in the Maritimes has more than doubled over the past decade. In Atlantic Canada, the number of full‐time visa students increased 12 per cent to almost 11,000 last year.
In short, the right immigration policy is in place; the demand for skills is evident in the Atlantic Canada labour market; and thousands of international students are already attending our East Coast universities. In addition, like all university students, they offer the job market what it most needs – not only specific skills, but the ability to think critically, reason, adapt and get along with other human beings.
So the puzzle pieces are all at our fingertips. What we now need to do is build a partnership to put them together.
The universities will play their part by making international students more aware of the CEC program. This program can provide a pathway to citizenship, but the CRA research shows that many international students do not know that the program exists. Nor do they know that eligibility criteria include French or English‐language competency and a year of skilled work experience in Canada.
A team effort
Other players – including the private sector, provincial and federal governments – must also step up to make the CEC program work for international students who show a willingness to stay and work here in the region.
Business leaders and business organizations are also key partners in this initiative. They are best situated to identify the skills gaps in the Atlantic Canadian workforce, and to welcome international students inside their organizations to help fill those gaps.
Governments must also play a role, by unleashing the real potential of the CEC program to help place international students in careers that will prove essential to the region’s prosperity.
The bottom line is that many of our international students – from nations as diverse and geographically dispersed as China, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia -- would like to thrive and prosper in Atlantic Canada after graduation and to contribute to the region’s development and prosperity.
We should do everything that we can to help make it so. Governments, our universities and the private sector should now partner in transforming the CEC program into an East Coast success story. Our international students represent a talent pool that must be tapped.
(Peter Halpin has served as the executive director of the Association of Atlantic Universities (AAU) since December 1, 2003. In his capacity as executive director, Halpin serves as an advocate for the region’s university sector with governments and other key stakeholders in higher education, regionally and nationally.)