B.C. needs to do a better job of attracting high-skill immigrants

Immigration continues to reshape the demographic landscape in British Columbia.

Every year, between 35,000 and 40,000 new immigrants arrive in the province. Currently, more than one-quarter of the province’s population is foreign-born. Most immigrants settle in urban centres, so 41% of Metro Vancouver’s residents were born in another country. Given relatively low birth rates and the aging of the population, these proportions are expected to rise over the coming decades.

Immigrants are an important element of the economic fabric of the province. Without this inflow of people, B.C.’s population would barely be growing. More significantly, growth in the workforce would slow to a crawl, and employers in many industries would find it very difficult to recruit workers. Labour shortages and hiring challenges would be widespread, and many businesses not tied to servicing the domestic market would likely relocate to other jurisdictions with more plentiful labour.

In Canada, there is a common perception that most immigrants end up in the country’s three largest cities: Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. This suggests that Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia are the predominant destinations for new immigrants. The reality, however, is more nuanced, with newcomers being more evenly dispersed across Canada than is sometimes believed.

The first thing to note is that for a number of years Alberta has been attracting more immigrants than British Columbia. In 2016, just over 31,000 permanent immigrants moved to B.C., whereas roughly 41,000 chose to locate in Alberta. Ontario was home for 89,000 permanent immigrants last year, while in Quebec the figure was close to 44,000. So based simply on absolute numbers, B.C. is fourth among the provinces in overall immigrant inflows.

The picture differs more when the relative size of each province’s population is taken into account. Looking again at last year’s numbers, 2,000 new immigrants moved to P.E.I. While this is a small number, it is meaningful for a province of just 150,000 people. In fact, adjusting for size of population, P.E.I. attracted 13.5 immigrants for every 1,000 persons living there in 2016 – the highest proportion of any province. Our guess is that few readers would have identified P.E.I. as the most “immigration-intensive” jurisdiction in the country.

Measured on the same population-adjusted basis, Manitoba and Saskatchewan also attract more permanent immigrants than B.C., with both receiving 10.5 immigrants per 1,000 persons in 2016. Alberta was close behind, with 9.6 immigrants per 1,000 persons.

In B.C., the ratio was 6.6, putting us last among the four Western provinces in new immigrants relative to size of population. Last year Ontario essentially matched B.C. in new immigrants as a share of the existing population, while in Quebec the figure stood at 5.3. In contrast to the common view that B.C., Ontario and Quebec are the only provinces welcoming large numbers of newcomers, in reality these provinces rank fifth, sixth and seventh, respectively, after adjusting for population size.

Something else to consider is the trend in immigration numbers. Over the past decade, the number of permanent international migrants moving to B.C. has trended lower, from typically being in excess of 40,000 in the late 1990s and early 2000s to 35,000 (or lower) over the past four years. In contrast, the number of new immigrants locating in Alberta and Saskatchewan has more than doubled over the last 10 years.

All this suggests there is scope for B.C. to attract more immigrants, assuming policy-makers wish to do so. It turns out that, after factoring in population size, B.C. is not an unusually immigration-intensive province. But the situation is different in Metro Vancouver, the destination for most international migrants, and a city-region that is being profoundly reshaped by immigration. B.C. arguably would be a healthier province if more international newcomers chose to settle in regions beyond the increasingly crowded and costly Lower Mainland.

One area of focus for B.C. should be working with the federal government to expand the number of high-skill immigrants who enter via the provincial nominee program (PNP). In 2015, B.C. admitted 3,800 principal applicants (plus 2,900 spouses and dependants) under the PNP. In comparison, Alberta and Saskatchewan had 4,900 and 3,900 principal applicants, respectively. In our view, B.C. should be lobbying to substantially boost its annual PNP allotment.

Jock Finlayson is the Business Council of British Columbia’s executive vice-president and chief policy officer; Ken Peacock is the council’s chief economist.