Ontario no longer primary destination for new immigrants
Immigration policy is a topic traditionally discussed at the national level. This branch of public policy aims at ensuring that Canada continues to attract the best and brightest to develop our knowledge economy, and ease the challenges of an aging population.
Yet, competition for skilled workers is not just taking place between countries, but also within Canada among the provinces.
Within Canadian immigration policy, there are three broad immigration classes with vastly different selection processes: family, refugee, and economic. Since the late 1990s, there have been changes to the ways the economic class, which represents approximately 60 percent of total immigrants, obtain permanent residency in Canada. Economic immigrants can obtain permanent residency either as a business class applicant, federal skilled worker (FSW), or more recently through one of the provinces’ provincial nominee programs (PNPs). Whereas applicants under the first two classes are evaluated and selected by the federal government, PNPs have devolved federal authority by allowing provinces to establish their own criteria for assessing applicants. The PNPs were created because the centralized system has not always been capable of adequately responding to the individual needs of the provinces. Demographic challenges associated with aging populations, declining fertility, out migration, and poor newcomer retention, as well as labour shortages vary from province to province.
Canada’s immigration strategy throughout the 1990s was largely based on increasing the supply of skilled (highly educated) labour to meet the country’s long-term goals. Throughout this decade, the smaller provinces continuously faced challenges in attracting and retaining these highly educated, economic class immigrants, while the larger provinces with the three largest cities (Ontario-Toronto, Quebec-Montreal, British Columbia-Vancouver) continued to receive a disproportionate share.
Under most PNPs, applicants must have a full-time offer of employment within the province and meet minimum skill requirements. One significant advantage of the PNPs is that the application process is usually quick to complete, allowing immigration to be an effective policy tool to meet labour shortages. This is especially important given that the federal government is swamped with FSW applications and is experiencing a backlog of up to six years. In 2008, the federal government introduced the Canadian Economic Class (CEC) program to speed up the process by giving preference to applicants with some Canadian work experience; however, the number of entrants under the CEC is still much lower than under the PNPs.
Since their inception, PNPs have been used most aggressively by Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and the Atlantic provinces to address their unique sociodemographic challenges. For example, some of these provinces charge no application fees, engage in recruitment efforts overseas, invest heavily in settlement programs, and from their efforts, have succeeded in attracting an increasing number of economic immigrants year after year. PNPs are flexible, and provinces have designed different streams to address the shortcomings of federal programs. Particular streams across different provinces include: general, employer sponsored, international students, and streams that value family ties to the province (provided the applicant can offer an economic contribution). Although most PNPs do have minimum skills requirements, they are often less stringent than those of the federal programs. Such flexibility combined with a relatively quick application process give smaller provinces an advantage when they are competing with traditional immigrant destinations such as Ontario.
Graphs 1 and 2 illustrate some interesting trends. The federal government’s human capital approach during the 1990s (in the early 1990s a change was introduce so that points allocated to education, official language, and experience all increased in order to attract the most skilled immigrants) increased the total number, as well as the average educational attainment, of economic class immigrants to Canada. Ontario and British Columbia saw their shares rise the most, especially amongst university educated applicants; whereas only small increases occurred in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and the Atlantic provinces. However, following the inception of PNPs in the late 1990s there has been a dramatic increase in economic class immigrants destined for Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and to a lesser extent the Atlantic Provinces. Considering the number of annual incoming economic immigrants in proportion to the provincial population, Ontario, historically a leader in skilled immigration, has fallen to a level below that of every non-Atlantic province. Ontario was the only province whose number of applicants decreased from 1999 to 2009.
Ontario is not facing the same demographic challenges as some of the other provinces, and has always been a popular destination for skilled immigrants. Out of all the provinces, Ontario has been the least active in utilizing its PNP to increase its share of skilled immigrants. Rather than a demographic policy tool, the Ontario PNP is more specifically targeted at attracting the most skilled immigrants to help employers succeed “in the global competition for talent”. The criteria for Ontario’s PNP are much more stringent than that of other provinces and include a minimum application fee of $1,500. The general stream requires a full-time offer in a skilled occupation with at least two years of work experience; and the international student stream seeks graduate degree holders or undergraduates with job offers.
For provinces to achieve their goals of satisfying labour shortages and correcting their demographic structures, PNPs need not only attract, but also retain these workers. In recent studies, it has been found that immigrants residing in smaller provinces are more likely to speak English or French (rather than an unofficial language) at work, earn higher wages and face fewer challenges in finding work relative to immigrants in the major urban centres of the larger provinces. A study regarding the retention rates of economic immigrants found that immigrants entering through PNPs had higher one-year retention rates than FSWs in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia; and similar rates in Atlantic Canada. This confirms that the smaller provinces are not losing out or wasting resources on attracting applicants through their PNPs.
The regionalization of immigration has dramatically altered the old patterns of economic class immigration to Canada. Smaller provinces are using a new policy space to satisfy local labour shortages and confront their unique demographic challenges. PNPs have been successful at attracting and retaining low, semi, and high-skilled labour to the provinces that historically have had troubles in doing so. As individual provincial interests are being better served through the decentralized process, it will be interesting to see whether or not over time provincial priorities come into conflict with national interests.
 Since 2008 those who would otherwise apply as a FSW who have some experience working in Canada can apply through an accelerated process, the “Canadian Experience Class”. For information on each class of immigrant, see http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/helpcentre/glossary.asp
 The role of the federal government is relegated to assessing health and security concerns related to the applicants. Pandey, Manish, and James Townsend. "Quantifying the effects of the provincial nominee programs." Canadian Public Policy 37, no. 4 (2011): 495-512. p.497
 Ferrer, Ana M., Garnett Picot, and William Craig Riddell. "New directions in immigration policy: Canada's evolving approach to the selection of economic immigrants." International Migration Review 48, no. 3 (2014): 846-867. p.849
 Pandey, Manish, and James Townsend. "Quantifying the effects of the provincial nominee programs." Canadian Public Policy 37, no. 4 (2011): 495-512. p.497
 Baglay, Sasha. "Provincial nominee programs: A note on policy implications and future research needs." Journal of International Migration and Integration13, no. 1 (2012): 121-141. p.124
 Ibid., p.136
 Ferrer, Ana M., Garnett Picot, and William Craig Riddell. "New directions in immigration policy: Canada's evolving approach to the selection of economic immigrants." International Migration Review 48, no. 3 (2014): 846-867. p.852
 Baglay, Sasha. "Provincial nominee programs: A note on policy implications and future research needs." Journal of International Migration and Integration13, no. 1 (2012): 121-141. p.132-35
 Ibid., p.132
 Akbari, Ather H. "Labor market performance of immigrants in smaller regions of western countries: some evidence from Atlantic Canada." Journal of International Migration and Integration 12, no. 2 (2011): 133-154; Baglay, Sasha. "Provincial nominee programs: A note on policy implications and future research needs." Journal of International Migration and Integration13, no. 1 (2012): 121-141. p.123
 Pandey, Manish, and James Townsend. "Quantifying the effects of the provincial nominee programs." Canadian Public Policy 37, no. 4 (2011): 495-512. p.507