Calgary and Edmonton must do a better job of making immigrants feel more welcome so they can realize their potential and help solve economic problems, says a new study by the Canada West Foundation (CWF).
"Edmonton and Calgary respondents independently indicate that Albertans present a troublesome and uniquely negative outlook towards immigrants," writes Jason Azmier, the study's author and a Calgary-based CWF senior policy analyst. "This represents a barrier for attracting immigrants and a settlement issue for those immigrants that do come to Alberta."
Azmier contends that immigration policy and practice is flawed, and immigrants are not being allowed to maximize their contributions to Western Canada. In the study, entitled Improving Immigration: A Policy Approach for Western Canada, Azmier calls on employers and government to improve the entire immigration experience - "from start to finish" - so that immigrants and their children can help Western Canadian cities deal with their labour shortages, increase exports, solve business problems and act as consumers of locally-produced goods.
Professional designations (which do not recognize immigrants' credentials), poor research, employer biases and immigration procedural requirements all combine to disrupt the fit between real market needs and the type of available labour, Azmier says.
But Edmonton Mayor Stephen Mandel insists the Alberta capital is engaging immigrants and criticizes the CWF for not contacting the city while conducting its study. But he acknowledges that Edmonton needs to attract more immigrants to help its economy grow.
"We need people - trained, experienced people," says Mandel.
The city is in the process of developing a strategy, expected to be presented to council in two or three weeks, to try to attract more immigrants to Edmonton and northern Alberta, "where there are wonderful job opportunities," he says.
Mandel has also asked Prime Minister Paul Martin and Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan, an Edmonton-area MP, to provide federal financial support to help Edmonton promote itself to newcomers.
He contends Edmonton has a very active and progressive multicultural community that that can support immigrants just as well as organizations in Toronto and Vancouver. But Edmonton is not as well known internationally as those cities.
"We believe we have just as good a capacity to absorb (immigrants)," says Mandel. "We have to get them here first."
Meanwhile, the CWF's Azmier says Calgary's economic opportunities continue to draw a disproportionately high number of newcomers who struggle to adapt to their new home.
"We have a lot of perception out there that Calgary is a place to be," he said in an interview.
As a result, Calgary has become the place where many immigrants first arrive in Canada - and also a second destination after initially arriving elsewhere.
"The biggest question is not whether they will move to Calgary but, rather, where they can find jobs and places to live," says Azmier.
Edna Sutherland, executive director of the Calgary Immigrant Women's Association, says every Calgarian needs to do more to make newcomers feel they're in a place where all people belong - rather than "just passing through."
"The blacker you are, the harder it gets," says Sutherland, adding Calgarians are not making enough of an effort to get to know immigrants on a one-on-one basis.
The study calls on Ottawa to research and promote immigrants' contributions in Western Canada, educate employers on positive values of foreign experience and training, and make more advanced language training available for adults on the job and children in schools.
The CWF also wants the federal government to focus policy more on the needs of refugees, use provincial nominee programs that give provinces more say in placing immigrants in high-needs areas, and provide immigrants with incentives to settle outside large cities.
More affordable housing and increases in the province's minimum wage are among several other recommendations.
The findings are the result of a year-long research study that included consultations with 180 immigration professionals, immigrants from a wide variety of backgrounds, and government officials in Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, Regina and Winnipeg. But Azmier warns that respondents' answers to questions have not been checked for accuracy or completeness, and a number of ongoing government initiatives are trying to address their concerns, but may not have had time to influence perceptions of the problems.
Edmonton, the study suggests, is having particular trouble attracting immigrants and providing necessary services.
"Of all the places we visited, Edmonton seemed the least engaged on the immigration question," says Azmier.
Unlike Calgary, the Alberta capital does not draw a proportionate number of immigrants and there are not enough services to support them, he says.
In the report, Edmonton participants attribute the lower levels of immigration to a lack of focus on attracting immigrants by municipal governments, as well as few opportunities being created by local businesses in the region.
The study calls on the City of Edmonton to launch a process better tuned to the business community's needs, tout the benefits of population growth as a way to filled the need for skilled labour and consult directly with immigrants rather than just through immigration agencies.
Despite the raps against the two Alberta cities, the study says Western Canadian immigrants may fare better economically than newcomers in other parts of Canada. And immigrants who head to rural communities tend to be better off than those in cities, it suggests. New arrivals in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal - the Big Three when it comes to luring immigrants - face more economic difficulties than those in other cities.
"That's a bit of a debatable point," admits Azmier. "If you're not in Vancouver, Montreal or Toronto, you're more likely to be earning a higher income and you're more likely to be employed."
Sutherland calls for more training programs funded by the federal and provincial governments and corporations, and more on-the-job mentoring programs that will help improve workplace culture for both immigrants and Canadian-born employees.
Because of its aging population, Calgary will face huge gaps in oil and gas, education, health and other sectors, which can be filled by immigrants, she says.
And immigrants themselves must also do a better job of networking, she says.
"It's not just the host," says Sutherland.
"I think the host community has a responsibility but the immigrant community (also) has a responsibility."
Her group holds networking breakfasts about every two months for immigrant women and potential employers. Often, she says, employers do not realize the high level of education that women have obtained in their home countries.
"I'm not knocking the system," says Sutherland. "I'm saying the system is open and ready. We can't just keep doing the same thing ... We're doing it wrong."
(Monte Stewart can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)