Canada invites migrants to help reverse rural decline

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The Independent US

Canada is preparing to unveil a highly unusual immigration policy that will seek to increase the numbers of foreign nationals settling in the country.

Canada is preparing to unveil a highly unusual immigration policy that will seek to increase the numbers of foreign nationals settling in the country. The newcomers will be welcomed in their thousands but on one condition: that they live in remote rural areas.

The government of Jean Chrétien, the Prime Minister, is responding to the results of a national census released in March, which showed that the population growth rate had slowed to a historic low of 4 per cent a year. The picture of a greying nation – where the birth rate has sunk to an average of 1.49 children for each woman – immediately set off alarm bells.

Without strong population growth, there can be little hope of economic expansion. But while the national picture looked worrying, things looked worse in a study of demographic distribution. While a few metropolitan centres are bursting, the expanses of rural Canada are withering.

The census for 1996 to 2001 revealed, for instance, that the population of Newfoundland – which has been hit hard by dwindling Atlantic fish stocks – had fallen by 7 per cent. The number of people living in Yukon, once a boom territory for oil workers, was down by 6.8 per cent and the population of the Northwest Territories had shrunk by 5.8 per cent.

Canada already allows in twice the number of foreigners permitted to enter the United States, which has also, historically, used immigration as a means of nation-building. Now, however, Ottawa – and some of its provincial governments particularly – want to open the door wider.

"We need to create more magnets for immigration everywhere," Denis Coderre, the minister of citizenship and immigration, told The New York Times. "It's a matter of population growth, labour supply, quality of life; the very future of our country." A new influx of workers would, for instance, help to reverse a narrowing of the tax base that is threatening the level of social services offered to Canadians.

What Ottawa is about to propose, however, is certain to stir political debate. Like every Western country, Canada faces strong resistance from some of its citizens to any increase in the number of foreign settlers. Critics of the new policy say that the immigrants will put new strains on healthcare and educational services.

All the problems associated with high levels of immigration – including the Balkanisation of communities and the racial tensions that inevitably follow – are already in evidence in the big cities, to which the newcomers are inevitably attracted when they arrive.

Tensions are especially obvious in Toronto, which becomes home to more than half of the 250,000 immigrants who are allowed into the country annually under existing rules.

Sending them instead to settlements on the tundra and the prairies seems an obvious alternative. The policy to be unveiled shortly by Mr Coderre will offer three to five-year work permits, with the prospect of citizenship thereafter, to thousands more immigrants, with the proviso that they live in far-flung places.

The move will be welcomed by the areas most scared of falling numbers. For years, many have been reaching out with advertising and recruitment drives for settlers from countries as far apart as China and Argentina.

The premier of Manitoba, Gary Doer, said: "For rural areas, if we're not in the process of growing, we're in the process of dying. So what we need is a targeted immigration policy."

The government, however, will face questions about the constitutionality of forcing new immigrants to live outside the big cities. And critics will ask the obvious question: once the newcomers have worked out their five years in the furthest reaches of Yukon, what is to stop them moving to Toronto?