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New tools for entrepreneurial immigrants

Business succession planning in North Bay is taking on an international flavour.
Don Curry of the North Bay and District Multicultural Centre is part of a community team working to attract and retain immigrants to the Gateway City.

Business succession planning in North Bay is taking on an international flavour.

The City and its North Bay Newcomers Network are rolling out a business immigration matchmaking program this spring through a partnership with Sudbury, Citizenship and Immigration Canada and the Ministry of Economic Development and Trade.

Marla Tremblay, a City of North Bay economic development officer and chairwoman of the Newcomers Network, calls it a "new tool" in the city’s immigration attraction and retention strategy, an initiative she has been championing for five years.

North Bay’s economy is powered by dozens of small and medium-sized business owners, some who are getting ready to retire and want to give the keys of their retail stores, restaurants and small hotels to someone who can sustain it.

Combined with the recent launch of a city immigration web site, North Bay’s immigration team plans to hit the road this year and make their sales pitch at immigrant service centres in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

Big cities with ethnically diverse populations are natural magnets to immigrants but the lure of good-paying jobs and business opportunities may draw them out.

Through presentations and familiarization tours of North Bay, the city and the newcomers network will showcase to foreign entrepreneurs and skilled workers all the local retail and commercial properties up for sale.

"It will be marketing similar to an E-Harmony for dating, only it’s business to people," said Tremblay.

Newly-arrived business immigrants in Canada have only three years to get a business up and running, and operating successfully, to retain their landed status.

"This helps with succession planning in keeping doors open of local companies," said Tremblay.

The Newcomers Network was born out of the city’s business retention and expansion plan five years ago when local businesses and manufacturers were asked what the city could do to help them grow and create jobs.

What employers expressed was a frustration in finding skilled labour and professionals in the North.

One way to address that was to attract talented immigrants.

Instead of looking abroad, the city decided to tap into a secondary stream of newcomers who were already domiciled in Toronto or Montreal.

"There are enough trained professionals in the GTA that are underemployed for us to source from," said Tremblay. "The process is easier if they’re already here."

Attracting migrants is one thing, retaining them is another.

It’s why a settlement office was set up downtown two years ago.

The North Bay and District Multicultural Centre has become an important social hub, for immigrants backed by an army of volunteers to help newcomers get comfortable and acclimatized.

It’s a modern-day version of the welcome wagon, "but more hands-on," said executive director Don Curry.

Instead of dropping off a gift basket and leaving, a community mentor can stay in your life as long as needed.

The settlement office helps them in finding good places to shop, locating a doctor, asking questions on putting the kids in school.

Volunteers lead English conversion circles with topics like getting dressed for winter and there are social activities scheduled like ice-skating lessons, tobogganing and performances at the Capitol Centre.

"Those kinds of things were never happening in North Bay before and that’s going to help us with retention," said Curry.

The clientele are often wives and children of foreign-trained professionals who landed jobs as engineers at North Bay-area mining supply and service companies, or at the Ministry of Transportation’s regional office.

The breadwinner speaks English and is happy, but the family is in culture shock.

"A big part of what we do in settlement and host is reaching out the rest of the family."

The first 12 months the multi-cultural centre doors were open, they handled about 150 clients. Their government funding has been expanded to cater to all categories of immigrants including temporary foreign workers, international students, the unemployed and even long-time Canadians who never learned to speak English.

The January launch of the city’s Immigration Web Portal means those numbers are likely to rise.

In the short time the centre has taken over the web site, they are already getting inquiries from overseas. Soon they’ll add a new section on employment.

Filling job local vacancies in the next two to five years, as baby boomers begin to retire, is going to take on a greater role within the centre.

Curry, who sits on the local hospital board, said when new North Bay Regional Health Centre opens later this year, close to 500 jobs will need to be filled in the next three years.

As an advocate of social justice causes for 20 years, he said the community acceptance of immigrants is much better, mainly due to the influx of international students who are more visible every day.

North Bay has always had a strong Italian community but in recent years more Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, Filipino and Spanish-speaking people from Cuba, South and Central America are trickling in. Last year, the city opened its first Mosque on McPhail Street.

"The face of North Bay has changed in the last five years. I think the vast majority of people are embracing it."

North Bay’s immigration strategy is part of a case study being documented by the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. The results will contribute to a community ‘how-to’ guide in attracting newcomers to smaller communities.

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