Pandemic Borders: Opinion

The challenges of immigrating to Canada’s smaller cities

City planners and policymakers in Canada’s smaller cities must seize the opportunity COVID-19 has presented to attract newcomers

Ather H. Akbari Jigme Choerab
18 May 2021, 12.00am
Nova Scotia has launched a campaign to attract people to the province
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Performance Image / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved
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With COVID-19 disrupting travel, shutting borders, and redefining what is essential work, Pandemic Borders explores what international migration will look like after the pandemic, in this series titled #MigrantFutures


Thanks to remote work and overall changes in the way firms organize their (virtual) offices, smaller Canadian cities are becoming a pole of attraction for all, including for newcomers. But city planners must put in place, early on, the necessary policies to seize this opportunity.

Just before COVID-19 negatively impacted global mobility, Canada had increased its annual intake of immigrants to about 300,000. Most immigrants to the country tend to settle in the larger cities like Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. But, since the turn of the century, a gradual shift in this distribution towards medium- and smaller-sized cities had begun to take place, due to the introduction of policies, programs and initiatives designed to attract and retain newcomers outside of the major cities. COVID-19 has had a negative effect on these population trends (Chart 1 below), and the long-term impact of the pandemic will create new challenges for new migrants.

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Source: IRCC, January 31, 2021, Admissions of Permanent Residents by CMA

Remote integration?

COVID-19 has changed the way we do business and socially interact with each other. Both are now more reliant on technology, and are expected to continue to be in the near future. While this opens up the possibility for people to settle in regional centres, it may compound the integration challenges that newcomers face. In the absence of a physical office space, how will they make connections with colleagues?

Building social and professional networks through online meetings is particularly difficult. Accessing devices to work on will also continue to be an issue for families if every family member is expected to work/study/communicate virtually. The digital literacy divide will have an even bigger impact. These new challenges will make newcomer integration more complex.

Housing

The housing sector will also present fresh challenges to newcomers, who tend to reside in rental accommodation during their initial years in Canada. Due to their overall lower COVID-19 incidence rates, and a shift toward remote work, some mid- and small-sized cities, which can offer more space and an attractive natural environment, have become magnets for those residing in larger cities where the incidence rates are higher. As a result, housing demand has risen sharply outside of large urban centres.

The housing market has not been able to keep pace with demand because of disruptions in supply chains of building materials and appliances. The result is rapidly rising, and for some, unaffordable house prices. This, in turn, is likely to cause greater demand for rental accommodation, which also faces supply bottlenecks. The overall outcome is an inevitable rise in rents and an increase in multiple family dwellings, where social distancing can be a major issue.

Studies in a number of OECD countries have found twice as high an infection risk of COVID-19 among immigrants than among the native-born, due to poor living conditions. A 2020 Statistics Canada report found that recent immigrants to the country are more likely to report symptoms of anxiety, such as feeling nervous or on edge, than other Canadians.

What can be done?

The social, economic and public health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to be felt for years to come. Public policies and practices aimed at successfully integrating and retaining migrants outside of larger urban centres in the post-pandemic context will have to adapt to the new challenges.

Extensive broadband internet services; greater availability of public computers with internet connections over a longer time during the day; and creating awareness of mental health issues and support for programs to help people deal with distance, uncertainty, and stress, should all be made public policy priorities.

In the housing sector, deregulating the process for building new homes and expediting the process of issuing building permits could help to address some of the supply issues, which in turn will help to keep housing prices within affordable limits.

Some smaller cities are already thinking about how they can seize this moment of opportunity. Some such cities in Atlantic Canada, for example, have been less impacted by the pandemic. This gives them a competitive advantage over larger cities in attracting newcomers – immigrants and non-immigrants alike – when considering the increasing tendency to work from home.

The province of Nova Scotia has already launched a new campaign to attract people, highlighting that they can enjoy living in a beautiful natural environment while maintaining their employment by working from home. For these promotion initiatives to have a lasting effect in attracting immigrants, carefully designed settlement and integration policies are essential.

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