Canada’s small cities and rural areas desperate for immigrants

September 14, 2016

By Alia Dharssi, Calgary Herald |

Deep in Manitoba’s Bible Belt, the small cities of Winkler and Morden have drawn so many immigrants recently that newcomers are helping create new places of worship.

There are now more than 25 churches in Winkler, up from 18 at the turn of the millennium.

More churches are under construction, while Muslim families in Winkler and Morden leased a building in downtown Winkler this year and converted it into a mosque.

Immigrants are flocking to these cities in the Pembina Valley for two main reasons: quality of life and jobs.

But driving through their quiet streets – the communities are about 10 minutes away from one another on Highway 3 – a visitor wouldn’t know that the booming companies that dot the outskirts of both communities manufacture everything from down jackets to model homes.

In 2011, Winkler’s population stood at 10,700; Morden’s was 7,800.

Both cities and the surrounding region have grown by more than 3,000 people since, thanks in great part to immigration programs that have drawn people from all over the world – and are so successful that people in other parts of Canada are taking note.

As their populations age and young adults move away, small cities and towns across Canada are increasingly looking to immigration as a way to rejuvenate their workforce and expand their tax base.

But many struggle to attract people and convince them to stay.

That’s not the case in Winkler, where more than half of the people who’ve immigrated there since the late 1990s have made it their long-term home.

For The Michelle Lang Fellowship Project: The Immigration Question by Alia Dharssi Martin Harder, Mayor of WInkler, at Winkler City Hall on July 24, 2016 (Lyle Stafford/Special to Postmedia). Story slug: 9999 lang pt6

“The best way to describe it is I used to know everybody who was in town and now I know very few people,” said Winkler Mayor Martin Harder.

With provincial programs that have enabled them to hand-pick immigrants well-suited for small town life and the needs of local businesses, Morden and Winkler have bucked this national trend.

Unemployment is so low, employers regularly seek immigrants from countries like Germany, Russia and the Philippines to fill their jobs.

More often than not, employers, immigration consultants or city officials from the region travel abroad to meet prospective immigrants, interview them on Skype or invite them for a visit to make sure they are a good fit.

The criteria for selecting newcomers is often the opposite of those used by the federal immigration system. At times, the two cities have favoured community connections over Canada’s well-known points-based metrics or sought out people who didn’t speak English.

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