Rural Ontario county turns to GTA immigrants to bolster economy

posted on March 9, 2018

By Toronto Star |

Owen Sound — As the bus weaved through single-lane country roads across rural Ontario to the County of Grey, Jacinda Rudolph was bombarded with questions from her eager passengers.

By Toronto Star |

Owen Sound — As the bus weaved through single-lane country roads across rural Ontario to the County of Grey, Jacinda Rudolph was bombarded with questions from her eager passengers.

How much does an average detached home cost? What’s the wait time for daycare? Is there public transit? Do you need a car to live in Grey? And most important for the 30 passengers, what jobs are available and do they pay well?

“I’m not a tour guide,” said Rudolph, the county’s outreach co-ordinator. “But if you want to know what country life is like, I can definitely help.”

On a gorgeous balmy winter day, the county government — along with the Newcomer Centre of Peel, a settlement agency — was busing in new immigrants from Brampton, Mississauga and Toronto for a field trip and the region’s annual job fair in Owen Sound, more than two hours’ drive northwest of Toronto.

“Honestly, I never heard of Grey County,” said Huntly Xiao, 32, who came to Canada from China in 2012 as a foreign student and became a permanent resident two years ago, when he graduated with a master’s degree in environmental engineering from Concordia University.

“I have worked at Tim Hortons for the past two years to survive. There are a lot of new graduates, a lot of new immigrants like me here. It’s a very competitive job market. This is a great opportunity for me to explore what is available.”

With Ontario’s — and Canada’s — rural communities struggling to fill labour gaps and reverse population and economic decline, the county’s New to Grey pilot project, funded by the province, is the latest attempt by the communities to attract and retain new residents — both Canadians from outside the region and immigrants — to the farm country. Many newcomers are reluctant to settle in smaller communities due to a lack of social support and professional connections.

This new model to mix and match newcomers with smaller communities and rural employers through partnerships with immigrant settlement agencies, if successful, could be a new way for Canada to spread the benefits of immigration and ease the pressure on big cities in absorbing newcomers, more than three-quarters of whom settle in just seven Canadian cities.

Although none of the bus tour participants had previously heard of Grey County — which is about two-thirds the size of Greater Toronto but with a population of only 94,000 — they have been learning and researching about the community with help from the staff at the Newcomer Centre of Peel.

Leading up to the field trip, many of the newcomers connected with job recruiters at The Agency, an Owen Sound recruitment company, about their resumes, skill sets, previous job experiences, employers’ expectations and the local labour market.

“It is a big decision to move. People can do their own Google search but they want to speak to a real person, an employer, a recruiter from the community,” said Tania Maximenko, a training and development facilitator at the Peel settlement agency.

“Our program offers a platform for employers and job-seekers, who wouldn’t have an opportunity to meet otherwise. That one-on-one communication is powerful. We see this as a new model of partnership.”

The guided bus tour was a first, intended to give new prospective residents a flavour of country living and allow them to build a network with county officials and local employers — a key for any potential relocation and settlement in an unfamiliar territory.

Shehnila Masud, a physician from Pakistan, was wowed by the scenic views of rural Ontario after the bus passed the cookie-cutter subdivisions and big-box stores in Mississauga, Brampton and Orangeville into the expansive fields and sparse farmhouses through Shelburne, Dundalk and Collingwood, where the group stopped at Blue Mountain for a meeting with a manager to learn about job opportunities at the resort.

“I have lived in cities all my life and heard smaller communities are better interconnected and people are welcoming. I’m not sure how true that is in Canada,” said the 50-year-old mother of four, as she paused to admire the picturesque shoreline along Georgian Bay.

“It’s hard to find out stuff if you don’t know anyone. But this time, they have arranged everything for us. Being able to speak to people from the community is crucial and I can look for myself what it’s like living and working in rural Canada.”

Over the microphone, Rudolph continued to entertain the enthusiastic visitors’ questions, telling them jobs are plenty in the region (4,100 new job postings over the past year) and houses are definitely more affordable (she paid $320,000 for her 5-bedroom house on a two-acre property in Owen Sound).

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