Why newcomers are beginning to bypass Canada’s big cities

posted on June 26, 2015

By Doug Aaunders, Globe and Mail | Link to Article

By Doug Aaunders, Globe and Mail | Link to Article

When Zernab Yazdani, an easygoing college graduate, talks about his childhood years in Riverdale – a cluster of aging apartment towers and townhouse complexes encircled by single-storey mini-malls – what tweaks his memories is not the ever-shifting mix of languages and cultures. Riverdale’s 7,500 residents were mostly born in other countries, as his parents were; only one in five speaks English as a first language.

Rather, it is the unspoiled nature just beyond the concrete. “It was a great place to grow up – we had tobogganing in the winter and trails in the forests, the lake right nearby and a lot of space to play.” The hiking trails, along with the air of mutual co-operation among the newcomers here, have drawn him back as an adult.

This could be one of the well-known high-rise immigrant districts on the outskirts of Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver: Shop signs are in Russian, Spanish, Hindi and Urdu; windows above stores advertise Sikh and Hindu temples, Russian Orthodox churches and mosques; the public primary school, with so many kids from the Indian subcontinent, recently built a cricket pitch where a baseball diamond would usually go.

But it isn’t. The apartment Mr. Yazdani shares with his wife looks across a leafy ravine to Stoney Creek, a largely agricultural community. Riverdale, a fast-expanding enclave that is, by one measure, Canada’s third most immigrant-heavy settlement, is in the eastern end of Hamilton, far from the city’s old steel mills and a stone’s throw from the vineyards of Niagara Region.

Hamilton is doing everything it can to attract people like the Yazdanis. In fact, there is a growing effort by many mid-sized, post-industrial cities to spark a new wave of immigration. Also struggling, places such as Moncton, Trois-Rivières and Kitchener are doing everything they can to open their doors, from adopting their own de facto immigration policies to, in some cases, even going abroad to recruit new residents.

While the great majority of Canada’s immigrants still settle in greater Toronto and Vancouver, secondary cities have begun to grab an increasingly larger share.

In Canada’s rust belt, mass immigration is increasingly seen as the hope for recovery.

A thriving destination for newcomers in the twentieth century, Hamilton has been in a long period of decline since its heavy industry dried up. To city manager Chris Murray, a revived immigration program was the only way out.

“We kept keep running into the problems of an aging population and a shrinking workforce and the question of how we’re going to pay for things in the coming years with fewer taxpayers …,” he says. “So you’d better hope we’re going to have a growing economy. And how that can be possible without immigration is hard to imagine.”

So, in 2012, Global Hamilton was created – a new department dedicated to making Steel City an immigrant city once again. The following year, the department’s head, Sarah Wayland, published a two-volume Immigrant Attraction Action Plan that was enthusiastically adopted by a majority on city council.

The city then went to work, printing a newcomer’s guide to finding housing in 14 languages as well as launching a simultaneous-translation service so city resources could be obtained in dozens of languages. It also created an online “immigration portal” to hook immigrants up with opportunities and a “soft landing program” to hook foreign high-tech businesses up with McMaster University and area community colleges.

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