Commentary by Don Curry in North Bay
Municipal councils in Canada’s smaller centres do not appear to be at the forefront in analyzing demographic and diversity trends affecting their communities. They ought to be looking for immigrants closer to home, rather than overseas.
I see it in discussions with municipal politicians from my perch in Northern Ontario, and in a recent Brockville Recorder and Times news article about attracting immigrant entrepreneurs. The municipality secured a provincial government grant to commission a study on the topic, one in which I am particularly interested.
The population of Canada is rising steadily and is more than 36 million people. Approximately 300,000 immigrants are now arriving annually.
Generally, newcomers to Canada do not emigrate to smaller centres, but to the larger ones, with Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver taking the majority. What is becoming more prevalent, however, is secondary migration to smaller centres.
In North Bay, population 54,000, where I live, there are more than 70 first generation immigrant-owned businesses. This is a relatively recent occurrence. Temiskaming Shores, population 10,500, is 90 minutes north of North Bay and it has more than 20 first generation immigrant-owned businesses. There, too, this is a recent occurrence.
The Brockville story that caught the attention of New Canadian Media noted the municipality of 22,000 people could attract immigrant entrepreneurs already in Canada. It was based on a study that contained a number of recommendations to make the municipality more receptive to immigrants.
I completed a study for the Far Northeast Training Board that will be released in January that covers some of the issues that Brockville council was discussing. I interviewed 36 immigrant business owners in 11 municipalities in Northeastern Ontario, the smallest with only 400 people and the largest the City of Timmins, population 43,000.
It supports the conclusion of the Brockville study that you don’t have to recruit internationally for immigrant entrepreneurs — they are already here. I expect to report on it in this space when it is officially released in January.
Moving within Canada
But for now, I can tell you that it shows two-thirds of the immigrant entrepreneurs in the study area were born in India, but did not come to Northern Ontario from there. They came from the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).
Dissatisfied with the high cost of GTA home ownership, high cost to purchase a business, and the congestion of the big city, they looked for alternatives and found them in Northern Ontario. They are just as likely to find them in Brockville, just a few hours down Highway 401, and in other smaller Ontario centres.
For municipal councils and economic development organizations, this is terrific news. Many smaller centre business owners want to sell their business and retire. Demographers have seen this coming for years, as more baby boomers retire.
In many cases their children have moved to a larger centre, or they are not interested in continuing the family business. In our region, we are seeing immigrant entrepreneurs moving north to fill the void.
Caught up in detail
The municipal council in Brockville, according to the newspaper report, was receptive to the study but reluctant to allocate funds in its budget to make Brockville a more welcoming community for immigrants. That is typical of what I hear in Northern Ontario as well.
Municipal councils, in my experience, spend far too much time on the mundane day-to-day issues that should be the purview of municipal staff members, and far too little time looking at the long-term future of their communities. The large cities in Canada, however, understand the value of putting policies, procedures, and people in place to ensure they are doing all they can to attract and retain immigrants.
Many of the smaller ones still haven’t figured it out. Studies such as the one presented this month in Brockville and next month in the Far Northeast Training Board catchment area of a large chunk of Northeastern Ontario should serve as a wakeup call.
While municipal councils in smaller centres spend months poring over budgets, their population may be in decline and they are doing little to reverse the trend. They are preoccupied with minutiae.
Now they know it is far easier to recruit people from the GTA than from India. But it will take municipal will to make things happen on a larger scale.
Don Curry is the president of Curry Consulting (www.curryconsulting.ca). He was the founding executive director the North Bay & District Multicultural Centre and the Timmins & District Multicultural Centre and is now the chair of the board of directors.