By Andrew Stevens
For the first time since the mid-1990s Saskatchewan’s population growth has tapered off, advancing a trend that began around 2018. That’s what makes the federal government’s recent, ambitious immigration targets so important for our province. By 2024 around 1.3 million permanent resident admissions have been planned for at the national level. It’s critical that migration be recognized locally as part of a broader COVID recovery program. But what will it take to realize this potential in Saskatchewan?
It took almost twenty years for the province to recover from the hemorrhaging of people that started in the mid-1980s. Successive governments under both the NDP and Saskatchewan Party recognized that our economic success story hinged upon population growth, and specifically the recruitment of skilled and low-skilled workers to our hospitals, construction sites, and restaurants. Permanent settlement was once again a leading political priority. This must continue to be a focus for our elected officials.
Provincial Nominee Programs yielded some federal jurisdiction over international migration to provinces in the 2000s, enabling regional governments to align immigration targets with local labour market considerations. Health care workers and other skilled professions were the coveted trades that Saskatchewan sought to recruit. The Saskatchewan Immigrant Nominee Program was successful in this regard, and our population began to rebound around 2005 when the resource boom took off. Bi-lateral agreements were even signed with foreign governments to help strengthen ties between sending and receiving countries, like the deal signed by the governments of Saskatchewan and the Philippines in 2006. Junkets and industry-led economic missions functioned as provincial recruitment campaigns.
We’re seeing this strategy pursued again in an effort to complement the ranks of our health care workers, devasted by the ongoing pandemic. Because Saskatchewan doesn’t have the luxury of other provinces with major metropolitan centres to rest on market forces to draw in new workers, political interventions are required. But this speaks to some fundamental issues that merit serious attention: what exactly is causing labour shortages in certain sectors?
Business groups are once more looking abroad to populate the low-skilled and low-wage occupations in the food service industry. Tales of worker shortages and job vacancies resumed the industry’s quest for cheap labour through a variety of foreign worker programs. Food counter attendants and kitchen helpers accompany low and high-skilled occupations that populate the province’s Hard-to-Fill Skill Pilot Program.
While employers are obliged to follow sectoral wage averages, regulatory loopholes help to maintain low rates of pay in certain industries. Unfortunately, we’re in competition with provinces that offer $15 minimum wages just as our basic entitlements lag behind. This says nothing of the COVID-induced employment conditions that prompted workers to leave the industry in pursuit of other opportunities. Nor will bringing in foreign nurses address the mental health issues that is prompting health care workers to consider leaving the profession. We also know that newcomers generally suffered disproportionately from the pandemic in terms of health and socio-economic consequences. Life after settlement is an equally important concern.
Skilled occupations are another matter. Post-secondary institutions can play an important role in working with professional bodies, unions, and newcomers in streamlining credential recognition – not to mention encouraging permanent settlement. It also means ending our reliance on international students as an inexhaustible source of tuition revenue at the university level. These institutions need to function as gateways not just for delivering an education, but in facilitating the permanent settlement of the world’s citizens here in Saskatchewan.
Municipal Nominee Programs show promise in empowering “local communities, chambers of commerce and local labour councils to directly sponsor permanent immigrants.” This speaks to the need of involving professional associations and unions into the design and execution of these respective programs. Both SUN and SEIU have made these overtures already. We simply can’t allow businesses alone to guide our approach to immigration.
Finally, there’s the reputation issue. “Ethnic diversity” has been recognized as the least “divisive” issue facing our province’s body politic next to COVID, climate change, and federal politics according to a recent poll by CHASR, but opposition to immigration lingers. Consider that some of the leading anti-globalist, anti-migrant Yellow Vest organizers simply rebranded as the Freedom Convoy that brought Ottawa to a standstill.
Elected officials need to be mindful of this threat and take a clear stance on the immigration question. This would mean stopping the casual flirtation amongst MLAs and MPs with movements that make Saskatchewan less welcoming for newcomers.
None of this can be discussed without recognizing the fact that Indigenous people suffer from lower rates and labour market participation and higher unemployment levels compared to immigrants and non-immigrants in Saskatchewan. Governments and employers need to be part of ending this chronic form of economic marginalization. This also means reviewing business and public sector investments into training and education for workers who are already here.
Making Saskatchewan an attractive destination for newcomers is both a social and economic win for our province. But it needs to be situated in a broader consideration of factors lending to existing labour market shortages.
About the author
Andrew Stevens is an Associate Professor at the University of Regina Faculty of Business Administration.