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Northern immigration pilot picking up steam in Thunder Bay

Thunder Bay CEDC reports 138 skilled foreign workers found path to permanent citizenship through program, meant to grow economic immigration.
RNIP
Eddy Lee's cook Hoi (right), seen with owner Nancy Lee, is one of 138 participants in Thunder Bay's RNIP program so far. (Submitted photo)

THUNDER BAY – A pilot program meant to attract and retain immigrants to work and live in Thunder Bay is gaining steam.

The Thunder Bay CEDC reported Monday that 138 foreign skilled workers have now been recommended for permanent residency through the local Rural and Northern Immigration Pilot (RNIP) program.

The RNIP, rolled out in 2019 in 11 Canadian communities, including the five largest cities in Northern Ontario, is designed to spread the benefits of economic immigration to smaller communities by creating a path to permanent residence for skilled foreign workers.

Participating employers must offer a full-time, permanent job in a priority occupation as defined by the CEDC, and demonstrate they first tried to recruit a Canadian citizen or permanent resident.

The local RNIP program recommended 69 candidates for permanent residency in year one, which ended in December 2020, falling somewhat short of an initial target of 100 candidates.

It has already matched that total so far this year.

With increasing employer interest and economic recovery from the pandemic, CEDC workforce development officer Emily Lauzon is optimistic the program is on track to recommend 150 candidates by the end of the year, the maximum allowed by the federal government.

That cap increased from 100 in the pilot’s first year, and could rise again in 2022, the third and final year, she said.

There are now 80 local employers using the RNIP program to recruit and retain workers, up from 25 at the beginning of 2020.

The CEDC is hosting an employer information session on the program on Aug. 25 for local businesses who want to learn more. Employers can register for the session online.

The increased interest reflects a growing need in the city, with estimates that Thunder Bay will require between 360 and 1,800 new people a year to maintain a sustainable population and workforce.

“As our community faces stagnant population growth and an aging workforce, many organizations are proactively sourcing the right people to offset predicted labour shortages in the future,” said Lauzon.

 Leading sectors taking advantage of the program so far in year two are accommodation and food services (26 recommended candidates), health care and social assistance (12), and transportation (8).

The bulk of recruitment in the accommodation and food services sector involved positions like cooks, chefs, and assistant managers at restaurants, Lauzon said, with a mix of chain and local operations.

Hospitality is not identified by the CEDC as a local priority occupation, though applications can still be made in the sector.

Positions recruited in health care and social assistance included nurses, personal support workers, lab technicians, and administrative assistants.

In transportation, companies sought truck drivers, mechanics, and administrative assistants under the program.

The RNIP has created pathways to fill jobs considered lower skilled that aren’t normally prioritized under Canada’s immigration system, but are badly needed locally, said Lauzon, such as truck drivers, security guards, and cleaners.

It’s an example of the benefits offered when communities are given a hand in guiding immigration, she said.

Participants in the RNIP program have been a mix of new arrivals and those already in Thunder Bay, often helping retain international students who attended Confederation College or Lakehead University.

Of the 69 people recommended for permanent residency in 2021, 19 were international applicants, a much higher proportion than in the first year.

Those applicants are coming to Thunder Bay from as far afield as South Africa, Australia, India, Vietnam, Hungary, the UK, China, Turkey, the UAE, and the United States.

In a paper released last week, the Northern Policy Institute (NPI) found the RNIP program had clear benefits across its five Northern Ontario communities based on a preliminary analysis of interviews with stakeholders from the initial months after launch.

NPI has partnered with FedNor to evaluate the RNIP program running through its conclusion in 2022.

Its recent report also made recommendations meant to inform future efforts in other communities. Those recommendations include creating a standard toolkit for municipalities “to help curb the initial learning curve on Canadian immigration processes,” and providing dedicated resources for RNIP communities to engage with employers, community groups, and the public.

Municipalities are increasingly taking on responsibilities for immigration attraction and retention, said Rachel Rizutto, a research manager at NPI.

That’s a good thing, but points to the need for new supports, including resources to help northern and rural communities be more welcoming to newcomers, she said.

“One of the recommendations that came out of the report is that perhaps a basic toolkit for immigration pilots should be developed, especially when there’s a downloading of that federal responsibility onto municipalities,” she said.

Workshops or toolkits on the basics of the immigration system would be helpful for any communities taking on similar work in the future, agreed Lauzon, with a foundational knowledge of the system essential to supporting newcomers.

However, she emphasized that the experience of the Northern Ontario RNIP communities showed the program could quickly bring benefits.

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