Winnipeg group shifts from labour recruitment to refugee work in light of war in Ukraine

A group that helps Winnipeg businesses grow is switching gears from recruitment to refugee work when it comes to Ukraine.

Economic Development Winnipeg was working in Ukraine before invasion to bring skilled workers to Manitoba

Economic Development Winnipeg wants to help Ukrainian refugees set up lives and jobs in Manitoba. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

A group that helps Winnipeg businesses grow is switching gears from recruitment to refugee work when it comes to Ukraine.

"We have one of the largest Ukrainian populations in the country, and we are looking forward to using those networks to help people in Winnipeg with friends and family in the Ukraine — or those who have left Ukraine — to offer them opportunities to come to this city and be safe," said Dayna Spiring, president and CEO of Economic Development Winnipeg (EDW).

For months, Spiring and her staff have been trying to bring workers from Ukraine to Winnipeg as part of their international recruitment program.

Spiring told the city's innovation and economic development committee on Monday they had a virtual recruitment event planned for this year in Ukraine, since it has a strong workforce in information and communications technology, agribusiness and aerospace — all big industries in Winnipeg.

"Given the current situation in Ukraine, we are now working with our partners to support federal and immigration refugee initiatives where we can," said Spiring during the meeting.

Economic Development Winnipeg president Dayna Spiring, pictured in 2019, said her organization wants to set Ukrainian refugees up with jobs in Manitoba. (CBC)

EDW, along with other business-oriented groups like the Manitoba Chamber of Commerce, signed a letter to provincial officials on March 7. The letter committed to helping refugees find work before or when they get to Manitoba.

"Since these individuals could help fill existing labour gaps and shortages in various sectors essential to Manitoba's economy, the anticipated influx of Ukrainians to Manitoba requires swift action to not only support their settlement but also make connections with local businesses eager to attract and employ them," the letter reads.

There's no plan on how to do that quite yet, but in an emailed statement, Dayna Spiring said her group "will be working with businesses, our settlement partners and governments simultaneously to figure out the fastest and best way to welcome and integrate Ukrainian refugees into our community and workforce."

Tapping into Ukrainians in Winnipeg and overseas

To bring people here in the first place, Spiring told the committee her staff is using their already-established connections in Ukraine to spread the word of job opportunities in Winnipeg. Homegrown connections are helping, too.

"Ukrainians aren't in their homes. They aren't looking at their email," said Spiring.

"What they are doing is checking in with their family and friends. They're communicating with their loved ones. If we can get the message to their loved ones to say there is opportunity in Winnipeg — we want you here, we want to welcome you here — I think that's very powerful."

Spiring said EDW is also trying to convince Ukrainian businesses to move their operations to Manitoba while the war is taking over.

"Let us give you a safe landing place, run your business, do what you need to do," she said.

"If someday you want to go back to Ukraine, and it's safe to do so, keep a small office in Winnipeg."

How to prevent Ukrainians from moving once they get here?

This isn't the only work EDW is doing to try and bring workers from politically unstable countries to Winnipeg. The organization is holding recruitment sessions in Hong Kong since it believes skilled workers may want to leave.

To make this all possible, Spiring said it's not just the provincial government that has to play ball.

"If the federal government allows more open work permits, or removes the requirement for businesses to have labour market impact assessments done before hiring, it could really help us find talent more easily," Spiring said during the meeting.

If Ukrainians come here during the war, Coun. Janice Lukes (Waverley West) said she worries they may follow the pattern of other immigrants or new Canadians who move from Manitoba to other Canadian cities.

"People move across Canada for a variety of reasons, but the community I speak to [in Waverley West], a lot of new Canadians, say it's for jobs," said Lukes.

"I'm challenged by that. It bothers me. I want them to stay here because of all the many reasons, we have like quality of life and cost of living."

Spiring said she's open to suggestions on how to retain new Canadians and other communities, but there's no shortage of jobs in Winnipeg. 

"I hear every day from companies that they cannot find the talent that they need to grow here. We have hundreds of jobs on our job website," she said.

"We are actively meeting with various communities in Winnipeg ... to showcase people what's possible right here," she said, adding they just finished the Retrain Manitoba program, which paid for extra training in existing employees.

"I don't know how we can necessarily do better. We're trying every day to reach out to those populations."


Sam Samson


Sam Samson is a multimedia journalist who has worked for CBC in Manitoba and Ontario as a reporter and associate producer. Before working for CBC, she studied journalism and communications in Winnipeg. You can get in touch on Twitter @CBCSamSamson or email