By popular demand: The Jason Kenney Conundrum

From my TJ column earlier this week:

Jason Kenney, Canada’s Minister of Employment, Social Development & Multiculturalism, is one of my favourite federal politicians. He seems to be an intelligent and energetic guy. For more than a decade he has been on a one-man quest to raise the profile of his party among Canada’s immigrant population. He is also one of the country’s most prolific politician tweeters. He is constantly tweeting about his interactions with Canada’s immigrant communities.

I suspect if the Tories remain in power, Jason Kenney may end up sitting in the big chair in the not too distant future.

But one aspect of Jason Kenney’s apparent world view troubles me.

He travels to Saskatchewan and eagerly tweets about the importance of meeting that province’s labour market shortages with immigrants and temporary foreign workers. He will say we urgently need a more flexible and timely immigration system to allow fast growing places such as Saskatchewan and Alberta to meet their labour force needs.

At the same time he has said in the media that he basically has no interest in using immigration to provide low wage workers in regions of Canada with high unemployment (i.e. the Maritime Provinces).

A hundred years ago federal politicians went to Saskatchewan and Alberta and took the completely opposite view. They saw a lack of economic development and very little population and decided to use immigration as a tool to foster economic growth, renew population in local communities and attract entrepreneurs.

They offered incentives to encourage immigrants to locate in places they might not initially have chosen. Immigrants were encouraged to bypass the larger urban centres – places such as Halifax and Saint John – to settle in western Canada.

In other words, federal politicians didn’t view immigration as a way to plug holes in the labour market – they saw it as a fundamental tool for nation building and long term economic prosperity.

This is what I call the Jason Kenney conundrum. Should immigration be used primarily to support already fast growing provincial economies or should it be used to bolster growth in weaker regions of the country?

I would argue the right answer is both.

The federal government needs to resist the temptation to apply national thinking and programming to radically different provincial economic realities.

In my opinion, Kenney should be coming to New Brunswick and the rest of Atlantic Canada and asking how can we use immigration as a tool to reinvigorate the population and economy rather than applying the same narrow rationale for immigration in Saskatchewan and Alberta (i.e. to plug holes in the labour market).

I know the example of the Prairies at the turn of the 20th century is not comparable to the Maritime Provinces in the 21st but I would argue they are more alike than you might think.

At that time the Prairies needed new population and new sources of economic growth. Immigrants, their investment and entrepreneurial skills enabled the growth of the West.
Now, Atlantic Canada needs a similar population renewal and this need should trump federal government concerns regarding overuse of Employment Insurance, low local labour market participation, skills gaps and limited intraprovincial mobility.

These four labour market barriers need to be addressed over time but the current economy and prosperity of the region should not be held hostage by them.

I have never met Jason Kenney. He may be a passionate advocate of using immigration to reinvigorate the economy in the Maritime Provinces. But the language used by him and other federal politicians doesn’t bring me much comfort.

Economic renewal in this region will require a multi-faceted strategy. A significant increase in immigration must be a key part of this strategy.