"Not to sound too political, but the less welcoming posture of some other countries are spawning sentiments of brain drain towards countries and communities who have the welcome mat out. Well, Brandon for its modest size, is exceptionally well positioned to welcome a significant influx of new cultures, new investors, new workers, new professionals. Our welcome mat is out, our arms are open and we are experienced and buoyed up by the foundation of our new cultural leaders already well established in our community."
— Mayor Rick Chrest, State of the City Address, March 9
From my point of view, this was arguably the part of his annual State of the City address where Brandon Mayor Rick Chrest sounded the most mayoral. Chrest, not one to ruffle feathers with other levels of government, did attempt to paint a contrast of Brandon’s open arms to newcomers with that of the positioning of President Donald Trump south of the border.
The mayor noted the important economic and social benefits flowing to Brandon as a result of the influx of newcomers over the past decade. Unfortunately, he also stopped short of a call to action. From my perspective, what we need is a process to galvanize stakeholders to develop a common plan.
There is little doubt that much of the story on immigration in Brandon over the last decade has been because of Maple Leaf. If we wish to continue the momentum in this area, a more diversified approach will likely be needed, barring an announcement that Maple Leaf will be adding a third shift.
If it weren’t for immigration, Manitoba would have a declining population. The combination of the natural growth rate (births and deaths) and net interprovincial migration (people coming from and moving to other provinces) would result in Manitoba losing population.
Manitoba has always had a strong track record among small provinces for immigration. Having been involved with immigration efforts in both Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan, I know both provinces looked to Manitoba as a leader to emulate.
One of the reasons Manitoba’s immigration efforts have been successful over the years has been the strong ties to the labour market. Newcomers have been able to secure jobs and build better lives for themselves and their families here in Manitoba. It’s also one of the reasons why Manitoba’s track record of retaining newcomers is also better than many other small provinces.
This is one of the reasons why the recent decision of the federal government to reduce funding for language training for newcomers has left so many dumbfounded. In fairness, it appears as if the government has maintained language training funding for Canadian Language Benchmarks 1 through 4. These are the most basic levels of language that allow a person to function in English or French in Canada. It also is required to apply for citizenship.
By contrast, funding for language training for benchmarks 5 to 8 is taking a beating. In Assiniboine Community College’s case, it’s being reduced from $730,000 in 2016-17 to $190,000 in 2017-18.
These benchmark levels are really the ones that help folks get jobs and eventually take the training to pursue careers. The lower benchmarks allow one to survive; these higher benchmarks are necessary if you want a chance to thrive. To work in retail, one likely needs to achieve benchmark 5 or 6. To be a health-care aide, you’ll need level 7. If you want to pursue post-secondary studies, levels 7 or 8 are going to be required.
The March 11 edition of The Brandon Sun was filled with two pages of letters from current students who have dreams and aspirations that will be cut short as they will no longer be able to access language training. While registrations have grown from 309 to more than 500 over the past five years, next year only 100 people will be able to access training. Consequently, many people will be relegated to minimum wage jobs or being supported by the state if they are not able to improve their ability to communicate in the language of work.
Aside from this setback, there is a strong opportunity for western Manitoba to continue its growth and diversity through immigration. Manitoba has the most favourable environment in the country for international students who want to immigrate. Both Assiniboine Community College and Brandon University have had growing numbers of students over the past few years. In the case of the college, we have grown from less than 60 international students in 2013 to more than 270 this year. We expect that number to grow to more than 300 in 2017-18.
Fortunately, these students already have language skills to enter the labour force when they graduate, and college or university credential to boot. International students could be one prong of a multi-pronged strategy our region could adopt to support greater levels of immigration, enhance settlement and retain newcomers in our communities.
But there ought to be an explicit plan; one where a variety of organizations including government, cultural groups, settlement agencies, post-secondary institutions, employers and others deliberately establish a co-ordinated approach to planned growth. A welcome mat is a great starting point, but we need to take the next step.
» Mark Frison is the president of Assiniboine Community College.