The key to rural immigration in New Brunswick

Lawrence Solomon
Keynote address to the Rendez-vous 2004 Immigration Conference, New Brunswick
June 24, 2004

As many of you know, most western countries are facing serious population decline because they have a low birth rate and are unable to attract immigrants. For example, demographers predict that Italy’s population may drop by 28% by the middle of this century, leading to great fears there of a declining economy and an inability to maintain social services. Germany and France and other European countries are also set for declines. The European Union’s population could drop by 80 million due to what Europeans call Fortress Europe – their bias against immigrants.

Europeans are not alone in being unable to come to grips with these fundamental economic and social dangers facing them. Japan’s population faces a similar decline because of its inability to accept immigrants. These countries not only face an uncertain future, they also suffer today because of their stagnant or declining population, as can be seen in their stagnant economies.

New Brunswick’s government has recognized this danger. It doesn’t want this province to be a Fortress New Brunswick, and it is taking steps to head it off. Hats off to New Brunswick’s government, and to the organizers of this wonderful gathering!

And hats off to all the participants in this room. You understand better than most the challenges awaiting us.


We have all learned in our history books that Canada’s openness to immigration has made us a great nation, and that without immigration we would not have developed as we have, into one of the most prosperous citizenries in the world, and into one of the world’s largest economies.

Everyone in this room has learned of the importance of immigration to our nation’s development, but we forget the type of immigrant that has made Canada great, the type of immigrant to whom, above all, we owe our prosperity.

It is the poor immigrant. Poor and mostly unskilled immigrants from the British Isles; poor and mostly unskilled immigrants from Continental Europe, poor and mostly unskilled immigrants from Russia and eastern European countries, from China, Japan, India and other Asian countries.

Poor and mostly unskilled immigrants came to this country in the millions in the late decades of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th. Accepting so many people led to numerous upsets, yet in hindsight it has become clear that we absorbed these waves of poor immigrants with remarkable ease, and in short periods of time, although they sometimes came into this country at an astounding rate, in numbers that today would seem to be overwhelming.

The immigrants came to our cities and they came to our rural areas, and they were settled without the benefit of the major government programs that are now available.

How were so many so successfully settled? Here is one account from almost a century ago, 1907, from Dr. Peter H. Bryce, Chief Medical Officer of the Department of the Interior in Ottawa. As students of Canadian history in this audience might know, Dr. Bryce would go on to become one of Canada’s most celebrated citizens. Here, in a speech to the Empire Club of Canada, he described what happened to newcomers whose skills were in great demand – these were artisans such as mechanics and wood workers – and he described what happened to others, who had little but strong backs to offer the new country. Here is how he explained it:

. . . the British who were not artisans have been sent to the farmers of the country, the artisans have been found work here [in the city] and in many other places, and the community is constantly crying out for more help. The Italian has almost wholly gone out on to railway work. We have then left 2,000 Hebrews, and some of these have gone into the [northern forested] Temiskaming district and begun settlements there. The balance have, we assume, remained in this or other cities.

The short answer for where the immigrants went – those with fewer skills were streamed to the rural areas, as farm hands or manual labourers; those with more skills, found city jobs. Immigrant communities largely stayed together.

In part, this division of immigrant by skills as well as ethnicity suited the needs of society – the skilled artisans were needed in cities and could find ready work there while the unskilled would have had more difficulty.

But this division of labour also made a virtue of necessity, because most of the skilled people wouldn’t have remained on the farm – most of them wanted to be in the cities. Even the unskilled immigrants sent to the farms often left the farms, on pain of deportation if they couldn’t find work elsewhere. And, of course, many Canadian-born farmers also were migrating to the cities.

That was, in fact, one reason that new immigrants were sent to the farm. Rural depopulation was then underway, even more than we see today. The authorities reasoned, quite correctly, that poor unskilled immigrants, grateful to be in a country that offered them opportunities, could find work in the rural areas, and might actually stay there.

This lesson from history holds the key to understanding immigration to New Brunswick’s rural areas today, especially when we remember that immigrants are not passive inputs to an economy but active, thinking human beings – in fact, they are unusually independent human beings, because unlike most of their countrymen, they had the gumption to leave behind the familiar surroundings of their upbringing – their friends and families, their possessions – all to cross an ocean in the hopes of finding a better life.

When the great waves of immigrants came to North America a century and more ago, most weren’t coming to escape religious persecution, and they didn’t choose North America randomly. They were coming to a continent that paid the highest real wages in the world. That is why they came here. Europe was stagnant, Asia was stagnant, North America was booming.

Immigrants came here on fairly reliable information. Yes, we did recruit Europeans to come to Canada, yes, we did send lecturers across the ocean to speak of our virtues, we did advertise “Free Homes for the Millions” for those who would come.

But the best advertisements were the immigrants themselves, immigrants that had already settled in Canada and wrote home saying that this truly was a promised land, and that anyone who wasn’t afraid of work could prosper here. Those in Europe who were considering crossing the ocean trusted the reports that they were getting and they came here in the knowledge that they could prosper. They traveled, then as now, from poor region to rich region to prosper.

Today, those poor people mostly have nowhere to go. The few affluent countries that remain open to immigration – and these are mostly the English-speaking democracies, Canada, the U.S., Australia, the U.K. – all discriminate against the poor and unskilled. Everyone wants rich immigrants, or investor-immigrants or business immigrants or well-educated immigrants or highly skilled immigrants – we call them economic immigrants, as if those who work as labourers or farmers or domestics don’t contribute to the economy.

We have forgotten that it was the poor and unskilled immigrant, more than all others, that made our country great through their back-breaking work, through their entrepreneurial talents, and through the dreams they instilled in their children. The mass markets that immigrants created gave our industries a growing market, and created a self-sufficient economy. The poor and unskilled immigrant played a defining role in our nation’s development.

For Canada as a whole today, discriminating against poor immigrants limits our potential. By shutting out the majority of potential newcomers – many if not most people in this room would not be worthy enough to satisfy Ottawa’s point system – we have made it difficult for ourselves to attract immigrants – in fact, Canada has difficulty meeting our immigration quotas because we discriminate against the poor.

As bad as this is for Canada as a whole, for New Brunswick, this policy is much worse. For New Brunswick, the policy of discriminating against poor immigrants not only makes it difficult to attract immigrants in any numbers, it makes it all-but impossible. As it is, the affluent or skilled people who do come overwhelmingly settle in cities, chiefly in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, and with Alberta’s growing wealth, also in the Calgary-Edmonton corridor.

Under current immigration policy, the less affluent cities of New Brunswick are more or less shut out, and New Brunswick’s rural areas fare even worse. All told, New Brunswick attracts about one-third of one percent of Canada’s immigrants. The rich and the skilled haven’t been making New Brunswick their destination – such immigrants tend to go to places that are more affluent, or that have large markets for their skills. Under current immigration policy, New Brunswick is slated for eventual population decline, just like European countries, because New Brunswick also has a low birth rate.

One reason for this conference is to improve the economy of New Brunswick. As we have heard this afternoon, New Brunswick faces a serious shortage of skilled workers, a shortage that is expected to grow worse in future as the population ages and retires. The Canadian Federation of Independent Business estimates 15,000 jobs are going begging in the small business sector alone. New Brunswick’s youths, who traditionally provided new entrants to the labour force, are declining in numbers. Young workers are especially hard to find in rural areas, because young people in rural areas are doing what young people have always done – gone to the cities looking for better opportunities. This is one reason that New Brunswick farms have had difficulty getting the help they need.

We have also heard this afternoon that skilled immigrants can help meet our demand for skilled workers, if we can only devise programs to bring skilled immigrants here, and in this I agree.

But unskilled immigrants can also ease the problem of too-few-skilled workers, and much more easily and quickly, by freeing up the time of existing New Brunswickers who have skills but are out of the workforce for one reason or another: These already skilled New Brunswickers may have children or ailing parents to look after, and no one to turn to for help. They may be tradespeople who can’t find low-cost assistants to do their heavy work, and so are themselves unemployed or underemployed. They may be talented youngsters who are staying on the family farm until their parents can get the help they need. Increasingly, they will be retired people in their sixties and seventies, who with a personal assistant could return to the workforce.

All these problems in the workforce can be eased today by allowing low-skilled immigrants to come to New Brunswick, in the same the way that low-skilled immigrants have historically eased labour shortages elsewhere.

Let immigrants come as house cleaners, as nannies, as cooks, as gardeners, as personal servants, as caregivers – immigrants have long played domestic roles, looking after households while releasing a family member to do higher value jobs that require more skill, or that require familiarity with the culture, as might be the case in a retail position that requires dealing with the public.

Let immigrants come in as farm hands, freeing youths and others from the rural areas. Let immigrants come in as labourers, to work in construction, or as blue collar workers on assembly lines.

Let poor and uneducated immigrants come in and make a new life for themselves, and most will do what most poor and uneducated immigrants have always done – they will upgrade their own skills, and also scrimp and save to put their children through school, producing the next generation of skilled workers.

This is what happened a century ago, and this is what happened a half century ago, after World War II, when Canada welcomed large numbers of unskilled immigrants from poor European countries such as Portugal, Greece and Italy. Seventy-five percent of these immigrants filled low-income jobs – the women became seamstresses and domestics, the men worked in construction or in maintenance. This generation was uneducated, often agricultural workers and other rural folk from small villages. Today these immigrants have become affluent, more affluent than Canadian-born citizens, and their children have university educations in the same proportion as the rest of society.

The knock against poor and unskilled immigrants is that they might get sick, or go on welfare, or otherwise not generate the revenue to justify the social services that they might require. This is a familiar concern – in fact, when Dr. Peter Bryce in 1907 described how recent immigrants were being settled, he was answering those who objected to immigrants on similar grounds. Immigrants often had tuberculosis and other ailments, immigrants often required relief, immigrants often lived in crowded conditions, and couldn’t speak the language and came with strange customs. “Those foreigners . . . have proved themselves very good citizens,” Dr. Bryce found, “and have come up very largely to our ideals of thinking and doing. . . . We have absorbed, perfectly I think, the thousands [of foreigners who have come here.]”

What Canada could do perfectly then, when it absorbed huge numbers, it can certainly do perfectly today, when the challenges are far less daunting. For New Brunswick, this is not an option but a necessity – without immigrants, New Brunswick’s population will surely shrink and its prospects in future will surely diminish. Without large-scale immigration in the past, in fact, New Brunswick has had a tougher time than other provinces. New Brunswick’s last large wave of immigrants came before Confederation, and after Confederation, well into the 20th century, the federal government programs that provided free land and otherwise encouraged people to come here focused on settling central and western Canada, depriving Eastern Canada of the economic activity that accompanies immigrants and putting Eastern Canada at a disadvantage relative to other regions in Canada.

It is time that New Brunswick got its share of immigrants, so important to making an economy grow. But it won’t happen if New Brunswick limits its sights to high-skilled immigrants. Today, the whole world is competing for high-skilled immigrants. Getting them to come to New Brunswick, especially to rural New Brunswick, is easier said than done.

But none of the affluent countries competing against us for immigrants want the low-skilled immigrant as a citizen. Canada, and New Brunswick, would have the field to themselves by opening the doors to poor immigrants.

The benefits to New Brunswick would be many. Economic growth would be spurred, not only because labour shortages would be met but also because the immigrants come with wants that need to be met. International trade will also be enhanced – study after study shows that immigrants use their contacts in their home country to establish trading relations.

The rural sector would especially benefit, as farmers start producing for a larger local population, and as they start producing the niche crops that immigrants need for their traditional dishes. To give you an idea of how big an economic factor those niche crops can become, consider this: The farms in the Greater Toronto Area produce 80% more agricultural produce than does all of New Brunswick. Those small farms don’t export commodity crops, they mostly produce for niche markets, none of which is more important than the immigrant market. The farmers in the Greater Toronto Area grow wheat, but not the kind seen on the Prairies. The Toronto area farmers grow varieties that Toronto’s Ethiopians and Somalis can’t get in the local supermarkets. The farmers near Toronto grow cabbages, a variety that Romanians and other eastern European immigrants were accustomed to in their homeland. Products such as these, which start off selling only in ethnic stores, then find their way into ethnic restaurants and specialty shops, creating new markets for local farmers.

Family farms do well where immigrants congregate. Family farms are on the increase in Alberta near Edmonton, Calgary and Red Deer because of the immigrants who have been coming to Alberta. Family farms have been on the increase in British Columbia, thanks largely to Chinese and Punjabi farmers who settled near Vancouver in the fertile Lower Mainland. Chinese-speaking farmers own more than half of the province’s mushroom farms and more than one-quarter of its vegetable farms.

Farmers need large markets. Rich immigrants, by themselves, can’t provide them. We need poor immigrants too, and poor immigrants, unlike the rich variety, are available in great supply. They will help our rural areas prosper and they will help our urban areas prosper.

And they will help our country prosper.

Thank you.

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