Ottawa lags behind Toronto in attracting immigrants: Conference Board

ottawa

Ottawa and other major Ontario cities outside the Greater Toronto Area are failing to draw their fair share of immigrants and need to attract more newcomers if they want to maintain their quality of life, a new study says.

The report from the Conference Board of Canada, entitled Immigration Beyond the GTA: Toward an Ontario Immigration Strategy, says more than three-quarters of the nearly 140,000 immigrants who arrived in the province last year settled in the country’s largest urban area. Noting that the GTA accounted for 45 per cent of Ontario’s population in 2018, author Kareem El-Assal says a disproportionate number of newcomers were choosing to live in the Toronto area, straining the city’s economy, infrastructure and services while depriving other communities in Ontario of potential skilled labour that could help grow their economies.

The disparity “makes it difficult for the rest of Ontario to utilize immigration as a tool to alleviate the economic and fiscal challenges caused by population aging, a low birth rate and high rates of outmigration in some cases,” the author states.

Forecasting that the number of deaths in Ontario will outstrip the number of births within the next 15 years, the Conference Board said immigration will account for nearly 100 per cent of the province’s population growth by 2035. 

Cities outside Toronto will need to come up with new strategies to market themselves to skilled workers from other countries or risk falling behind in economic growth, the study said.

“If they do not attract more immigrants, Ontario’s (urban areas outside the GTA) will see their potential economic output slow, and face the possibility of fiscal resources being directed away from them to fund the increasing demand for infrastructure and services in the GTA,” El-Assal wrote in the report released Thursday.

About 106,000 immigrants settled in Toronto last year, the study said, while Ottawa was a distant second, bringing in 9,830 newcomers. Although the nation’s capital represents almost one-tenth of Ontario’s population, its share of immigrants was roughly seven per cent.

“In other words, the GTA is the only CMA that has a newcomer intake proportionate to its demographic weight within the province,” the study noted.

Ottawa has a number of selling points for immigrants, the report said, including a thriving tech sector that offers plenty of employment opportunities and a large francophone population that could be a drawing card for people from French-speaking countries.

Among the study’s recommendations is the creation of a long-term provincial strategy to promote cities outside the GTA as a home for new immigrants that would set targets for the number of newcomers in various regions to encourage more balanced immigration across Ontario. It urges governments, economic development agencies and other groups to develop performance metrics such as employment rates and newcomer satisfaction rankings to track the success of the program.

While noting that some Ontario cities, including Ottawa, already have local immigration strategies, the report says “municipal leadership is absent” in many other areas.

“Ontario municipalities must showcase their leadership,” it says. “One way they can do this is by ensuring they have immigration strategies of their own in place. This is crucial to signalling their intention that they want to welcome more immigrants and will take all necessary steps to succeed.”

The report also urges the province to revamp the Ontario Immigrant Nominee Program ​– which allows foreign workers with in-demand skills and experience to apply for permanent residence ​– to help steer more immigrants beyond the GTA. It suggests the government could set quota targets that allocate a guaranteed number of spots to certain regions.

The program “is perhaps the biggest policy lever that the Ontario government can use to improve regionalization,” the authors say.

The report says that overall, cities need to become more aggressive in marketing themselves to newcomers. It suggests they tap into networks of recent immigrants to their communities and use social media platforms and other advertising tools to promote “ethnic cuisine, religious institutions and other amenities” in those cities.

“Implementing a data-driven approach to marketing and better harnessing social networks and pre-arrival services are ways that might help to make a difference,” it said.