In Emily Lauzon's work recruiting newcomers to Thunder Bay, she often hears different versions of the same complaint: why is the city providing jobs to people from outside the community when there are so many at home who are unemployed?
The simple answer is that there just aren't enough local people who have the skills required to work in specific roles, and so employers are looking elsewhere to fill them.
But the overarching picture is more nuanced, explained Lauzon, who serves as the Thunder Bay coordinator for the Rural and Northern Immigration Pilot (RNIP).
Even if 100 per cent of the labour force was working, northwestern Ontario alone would still need 2,000 or more newcomers just to support the dependency ratio, which is the ratio of workers to dependents, Lauzon said.
And it's a scenario that's repeated in community after community right across Northern Ontario.
“The Rural and Northern Immigration Pilot is not just about jobs, and it's not just about filling jobs,” she said. “It's about population growth.
“It's about having a tool to attract newcomers to our communities and grow our communities to secure the future of our communities, and prevent future labour shortages.”
In Sault Ste. Marie, employers are desperate for skilled workers ranging from physicians and personal support workers (PSWs) to Red Seal-certified skilled tradespeople.
Lauzon's counterpart there, Paul Sayers, said he often takes a direct approach to educating critics on the value of immigration to the area.
“‘Are you a physician? Are you a skilled tradesperson, or know anyone in your family who has those skills?’” he said he asks them. “Because I would love to meet them to see what we can do to help them obtain employment in this city.
“That's why we access this program, because Canada doesn't necessarily have the capacity for some of these roles, so we have to look elsewhere.”
Thunder Bay and the Sault – along with North Bay, Sudbury, and Timmins – were among 11 communities chosen in 2019 to participate in the five-year Rural and Northern Immigration Pilot, which is being led by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) under the federal government.
Coordinators from the five Northern Ontario cities gathered online for a discussion on the program's success to date during the Magnetic North Conference, hosted by Northern Policy Institute June 22-23, which focuses on how to grow the North's population.
Because RNIP is a community-driven program, each participating city can tailor the newcomer vetting criteria to its specific needs. Local committees then recommend applicants for immigration.
All five northern cities have identified health care and the skilled trades as priority sectors, but it varies from there.
Timmins needs people in social work and administration, for example, while North Bay is seeking workers with expertise in aviation and manufacturing.
In Sudbury, mining, mining supply and service, and tourism have all been earmarked as priority industries.
Sudbury's RNIP coordinator, Alex Ross, said the gaps in that city are resulting in low productivity for many business owners.
“I hear employers saying they can't take on new contracts because of (occupation-specific labour shortages),” he said.
“Some employers have looked into offering incentives for their employees to find other local workers and were somewhat successful, but they still needed to look at recruiting non-locally.”
Now that RNIP has completed a full year in operation, the communities are starting to see the impact of the pilot.
In its first year in the program, Timmins recommended 41 candidates for immigration, most of whom were already living, working, and studying in the community, noted coordinator Madison Mizzau.
“International student graduates made up the vast majority of the recommendations in the first year,” she said.
“They’ve been living here, they’ve been studying here for over two years, and they’ve really integrated into the community, into their jobs, so we’re very happy that they did make up a vast majority.”
The remainder of the recommended applicants were living in Timmins on temporary work permits, or were international recommendations that local employers had been in the process of recruiting, Mizzau said.
Now well into the second year of RNIP, Timmins has already identified more than 41 candidates and, despite some setbacks due to COVID-19, is optimistic about its prospects.
“We're hoping to have a more successful year this year,” Mizzau said.
Thunder Bay also drew from its postsecondary educational community for the majority of its first-year applicants.
Of those recommended, 68 per cent came from either Confederation College or Lakehead University, Lauzon said, and 50 per cent of the job offers for applicants came from just two employers: St. Joseph's Care Group and Thunder Bay Regional Hospital.
Lauzon credited the community selection process as an integral reason for the program's success.
“You have real people living and working in the community that are supporting the applicants and employers. It's a very tangible experience,” Lauzon said.
“There's a lot of trust that can be built about this type of process and about the system, which gives a willingness to use the pilot, both from the candidate side and the employer side.”
North Bay has taken a unique approach to RNIP, with the North Bay & District Chamber of Commerce taking point on the program's rollout.
Patti Carr, the former vice-president of policy and communications for the chamber, helped lead the process during its early stages.
Carr has long advocated for an expansion of RNIP beyond just the five big northern cities, so that even smaller, rural areas can fulfill their workforce needs as well.
In North Bay's initial proposal to IRCC, the city wanted a catchment area that reached as far north as Kirkland Lake and as far south as Burk's Falls. But that outline was rejected.
“There are some great companies all the way up the (Highway 11) corridor, and our focus was the businesses that required staffing and higher skilled staff,” Carr said.
“They ended up giving our catchment area a 45-kilometre radius around North Bay, but not recognizing that 75 per cent of that was bush and lakes.”
Carr said the city has filled spots where it can, but there are still plenty of other gaps in manufacturing, health care, IT and aviation – in North Bay and beyond.
She still believes that an expanded model has potential and is hopeful IRCC will consider it in the future.
“I think it's still doable, and we're still getting questions from those areas,” she said. “I just hope they open that up.”
If the program does expand, Mizzau believes it can be a great advantage for communities across the North.
Immigrants tend to settle in Vancouver, Toronto or Montreal, she noted, but RNIP has done a superb job of boosting the profile of communities like Timmins amongst the international newcomer community.
“I think all of us have experienced a lot of interest from across the country, from international applicants who might not have heard of our communities prior to RNIP, but it has really put, at least Timmins, on the map as a place to live and work,” Mizzau said.
“This would definitely be beneficial to other communities.”