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Economy

NWT launching new immigration initiatives in bid to fill vacancies


With companies incapable of finding workers, the Northwest Territories is preparing a new immigration push to attract more people to the North.

On recent trips to Yellowknife, a range of federal ministers acknowledged the scale of the current Canada-wide staffing crisis and pointed to immigration as a means of solving the problem.

However, more important was the ministers’ recognition that the North, where employers faced a battle to attract and retain staff well before the problem spread elsewhere, was a special case.

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“The North has unique issues when it comes to the job market,” northern affairs minister Dan Vandal told Cabin Radio in August. “We are paying extra attention to what’s happening in the North.”

Federal recognition of the NWT’s need for special measures is critical because immigration is federally controlled. Generally speaking, the territorial government cannot introduce significant new initiatives without Ottawa’s sign-off.

“Every program we have, we develop in conjunction with the federal government,” NWT employment minister RJ Simpson said last week.

“They are the ones with the constitutional authority over that. I’ve noticed, as this has become a bigger issue, that there has perhaps been more willingness on their part to look at different options.”

Simpson told Cabin Radio his government will shortly introduce a new francophone immigration stream and is working to expand what is known as the “employer-driven stream,” a process whereby companies trying to fill vacancies can sponsor immigrants to the NWT.

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The minister said full details of changes to the employer-driven stream were not yet available but would be announced in the coming weeks.

“We are looking at streams that target people with different skills to make the NWT more attractive,” Simpson said.

Ottawa’s northern pilot excludes North

While larger Canadian cities are obvious destinations, moving to the Northwest Territories may not always be apparent to prospective immigrants as a possibility.

The NWT isn’t the only part of Canada with that problem. For that reason, the federal government operates a program known as the Rural and Northern Immigration Pilot with the express purpose of “spreading the benefits of economic immigration to smaller communities in Canada.”

The pilot is in the process of expanding to feature a broader range of jobs for which skilled foreign workers can apply. If they receive a qualifying job offer in any of the pilot’s 11 participating communities, they can be sponsored for permanent residency.

Benefits to communities include highlighting their vacancies to immigrants and fast-tracking the process of bringing someone in.

Despite its name, the Rural and Northern Immigration Pilot does not currently include any northern communities.

Asked why not, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada refused an interview request but said in a statement that the federal government “cannot work with every single community in Canada at this time.”

“The pilot provides an opportunity to test new approaches that can be applied more broadly in the future, ensuring all of Canada’s diverse regions benefit from immigration,” the statement continued.

“Canada remains committed to working with the territorial governments, in recognition of the unique situation in the territories, to maximize the benefits of immigration in Canada’s North.”

Simpson said the Rural and Northern Immigration Pilot was “exactly the type of program that we’re talking to the feds about,” adding that the program’s conception several years ago had predated his appointment as minister.

“It would have been great if that was already in place,” he acknowledged.

“I would be frustrated if there was no movement on the file but the feds are taking it very seriously, as all jurisdictions are. I’m hopeful.”

Similar conditions across Canada, US

The unemployment rate in the Northwest Territories was reported at 4.1 percent in July, the territory’s second-lowest figure since 2009 (beaten only by November last year, when the NWT posted a rate of 3.4 percent).

The lower that rate is, the more people are in work – a good thing, from many points of view. But that same low rate means employers will have a tough task recruiting anyone to fill vacancies.

Simpson pointed out that the NWT is far from the only jurisdiction facing a low unemployment rate. Across Canada, the July unemployment rate was 4.9 percent, the lowest national rate on record.

Even those figures pale in comparison to other areas.

In the US state of Minnesota, for example, the unemployment rate has dropped to 1.8 percent and, in some metropolitan areas, lower still.

The Washington Post this week reported circumstances in Minnesota that might sound strikingly familiar to those in the NWT: stores closing for hours at a time (or failing to open at all) because no staff exist, the ability of employees to request increasingly competitive salaries and conditions, and “now hiring” signs at virtually every business.

“Workers have an extraordinary amount of choice right now in Minnesota,” the newspaper quoted a state employment specialist as saying. “Companies are desperate for workers. Labour is such a prized asset right now.”

In Fort Simpson, essentially the same scenario is playing out.

A notice shared to a Facebook group on Sunday reported that the Dehcho community’s Northern grocery store will operate shortened hours from this week onward because of “extreme staff shortage.”

“We will do our best to resume normal services, but we are stretched too thin at the moment,” the notice in the village of 1,200 people read. “This decision was not entered into lightly.”

Among other comments on Facebook, responding to a resident asking why nobody wants to work, someone had responded: “I was only getting 16 an hour lmfao.”

‘Immediate needs’

Simpson said the NWT’s existing immigration strategy expires this year and a new one is on the way. The Covid-19 pandemic, he noted, had shifted the entire country’s attention away from immigration for two years.

In the longer term, the minister said initiatives like the transformation of Aurora College into a polytechnic university and the rollout of $10-a-day childcare would help to expand the territory’s workforce.

“But we have immediate needs as well. We need to do something now,” he added.

Over the past 10 years, the NWT has attracted a net influx of around 150 to 200 international migrants per year. However, the territory’s population has essentially flatlined since 2018 because the international gain is offset by NWT residents moving to other parts of Canada.

“What we can do is make the NWT more attractive in other ways,” said Simpson.

“We have to ensure there are places for people to live when they get here. We need to promote the benefits of the NWT. Not everyone is looking for the NWT, but plenty of people enjoy the experience they get in the NWT. We need to ensure we get that word out there.

“We also need to ensure we’re supporting employers as they adapt to the new climate. Workers have a lot of power these days, they have a say in where they want to go. We need to support employers as they adapt – whatever that might mean.”

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