UCP immigration plan would try to lure 10,000 newcomers a year to rural Alberta
Jason Kenney says the plan would help economy and halt population decline in rural areas
If the UCP wins Alberta's spring election, Jason Kenney says the party would focus on settling new immigrants in rural areas by giving priority to those who would move there and creating a rural entrepreneurship program.
"Our goal is to end large backlogs, speed up processing, proactively attract talented newcomers from overseas, welcome entrepreneurs, and encourage settlement in rural Alberta," the UCP leader said on Monday in Chestermere, Alta.
Kenney said the UCP plan would aim to bring approximately 10,000 newcomers in total to rural Alberta every year.
Kenney, who served as federal immigration minister from 2008 to 2013, said the plan is meant to address population decline in rural Alberta and reinvigorate the provincial economy.
10 per cent settle in rural areas
Between 2015 and 2018, an average of 10.3 per cent of permanent residents headed for Alberta intended to settle in rural areas, according to figures from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. That number dipped to 9.5 per cent in 2018.
The rest intended to settle in one of the province's seven largest population centres: Calgary, Edmonton, Red Deer, Lethbridge, Wood Buffalo, Grande Prairie or Medicine Hat.
The UCP plan mirrors a recent move by the federal government aimed at placing more immigrants in rural communities across Canada.
While immigration is largely seen as a federal responsibility, it is shared between the provinces and Ottawa.
Each province and territory negotiates its own agreement, but that falls within a broader immigration policy set by the federal government.
Alberta immigration policy
In Alberta, there is both a comprehensive immigration agreement and an immigrant nominee program that allows the province to target would-be Albertans based on labour needs.
The federal government assigns a quota of approximately 5,000 positions for the Alberta nominee program.
Kenney says for each one of those positions, typically four people — family members of the nominee — settle in the province.
"I truly believe we have not been as proactive or energetic as we should be in this program," said Kenney, as he outlined the UCP's plan if it forms the next provincial government in an election that has not been called yet by Rachel Notley's governing NDP.
Under Alberta legislation, the election must take place between March 1 and May 31, 2019, with a 28-day campaign.
Kenney's plan calls for partnerships with rural communities, where referrals from those communities can help place immigrants into the provincial nomination process.
He estimates these changes could bring 8,000 newcomers to smaller communities each year.
Kenney says the plan is based on Manitoba's system, where 20 per cent of newcomers now settle in rural areas.
Entrepreneur program could add 2,000 people to rural areas
The UCP would also create what it's calling a rural entrepreneur stream.
It would set aside 500 position for immigration to the province for those who meet minimum income and investment thresholds and are willing to invest in businesses in rural communities.
Kenney says those immigrants would have to be active majority owners of those businesses.
He says the UCP estimates the entrepreneur program could mean an additional 2,000 people coming to rural communities each year.
That system is based on one in British Columbia.
Kenney said there are details that would have to be worked out before the immigration policy was established, based on what he said would be extensive consultations with immigrants, agencies, municipalities and more.
He also said Alberta under the UCP would push for a larger share of immigrants outside of the provincial policy.
"My goal would be to get a larger share of the federally selected immigrants by getting our economy back to work," said Kenney.
What is rural?
Just what Kenney means by rural is up for debate and has implications for the success of the proposal, according to University of Alberta political scientist Roger Epp.
"Rural immigration or immigration as a positive solution to rural challenges is hardest to achieve where it is probably needed most for purposes of repopulation. It is probably easiest in these medium-sized cities," he said.
"And so the question is: are they part of the rural that's being described here? If you're looking at smaller centres, I think immigration, entrepreneur class immigration, is a real challenge and it requires some services. And so it will be interesting to see whether the policy as it rolls out, or is fleshed out, speaks to the services that immigrants might need in smaller communities."
Appeals to a rural identity
Epp says not only is this policy something that might resonate with urban voters in more diverse cities, it is also a nod to the traditionally conservative rural areas.
"This is a government that is going to, I think, try to rekindle the notion that it speaks for rural Alberta. And to do that, you need some sort of suite of policies. And even though they would be very general, even though rural will be very broadly defined, you need some suite of policies if you are going to be the champion of rural Alberta," he said.
Even if the electoral weight of rural Alberta has been subjected to a significant diet, speaking as the protector of rural ideals and traditions still carries some heft.
"Whatever our mythology in Alberta, this is a very urban province in a very urban country," said Epp.
"And so all those are realities, which doesn't prevent rural surviving as a kind of identity touchstone to which political appeals get made. And I think in that sense rural is still open for political resonances or political pitches that resonate."
NDP attacks Kenney's federal record
The NDP said Kenney could not be trusted on the immigration file.
"As a federal minister, he absolutely did a horrendous job with the [temporary foreign worker] program, taking advantage of individuals, giving them the presumption that they could immigrate and, you know, just pulling that out from underneath them, not creating a safe environment for individuals and so forth," said Alberta Education Minister David Eggen.
"So, you know, here he is from one failure federally and then trying to input that into a provincial jurisdiction. I think that people will take a very cynical eye at this."
Eggen was referring to Kenney's time as employment minister when the temporary foreign worker program was in the news, with allegations of abuse by employers as well as complaints about jobs going to temporary workers rather than Canadians.
- An earlier version of this story said the UCP plan aims to bring 10,000 more immigrants to rural communities every four years. In fact, it aims to bring 10,000 more immigrants to rural communities each year.Feb 25, 2019 11:22 AM MT