Icelanders eye Manitoba as land of opportunity

The global economic crisis is prompting some people in Iceland to consider a move to Manitoba, already home to the largest Icelandic community outside of that country.

The global economic crisis is prompting some people in Iceland to consider a move to Manitoba.

The province is already home to the largest Icelandic community outside of that country. Now, the Manitoba government is offering to help unemployed Icelanders fill job vacancies in the Prairie province.

Manitoba Labour Minister Nancy Allen sent a letter to Iceland's new government last week, offering to arrange a "special labour initiative." She is willing to help fast-track applications made under Manitoba's provincial nominee program and Ottawa's temporary foreign worker program.

"There's no question this would be a win-win situation for Manitoba," she said. "It would be an opportunity for us to provide employers with the skilled-labor people that they need to fill their shortages."

The government of Iceland would pre-interview potential candidates for employers in Manitoba, who would also have to go through a screening process.

Workers could apply for permanent residence

After working in the province for at least six months, the Icelandic workers could apply to become permanent residents.

Jon Olafsson, who owns an architectural firm in Iceland, said the economic collapse in his country has had a devastating impact on his business. He has had to lay off 10 people and will have to make some more tough decisions regarding about 20 other employees.

"We have loans to pay in the firm; we have wages to pay. If we close down, there is no bread on the table for us, so we have to do something else."

That's why he and two colleagues were in Manitoba last month, looking for work. He cited Ottawa's stimulus budget and Manitoba's booming construction industry as providing opportunities in this country.

"They will put money into the infrastructure and some of it will fall off to the architects," Olafsson said. "I understand the architects in Manitoba are pretty much occupied with their assignments and we could help them with getting the work done."

Manitoba construction industry booming

Atli Asmundsson, Iceland's consul general in Manitoba, has been fielding calls for months from Icelanders looking for job opportunities in Manitoba.

"There are tens of thousands of people of Icelandic descent in Manitoba, all have relatives in Iceland, so words get around," he said. "Somebody has lost their job [in Iceland] so they ask their friends here if [there are] any possibilities."

And there are. Even though Canada lost 129,000 jobs last month, most of them were in the manufacturing sectors in Ontario and Quebec. Manitoba's construction industry is booming, and employers can't find enough tradespeople or supervisors. That means projects across the province are being delayed.

Meanwhile, 5,000 kilometers away in Reykjavik, Iceland, Kjartan Sigurdsson is a contractor who just had to lay off more than 30 employees.

"Everything was working fine, then the bank collapsed," he said. "The next building we planned to make and sell was [no longer] possible because the buyer can't get any money to buy it. We have to get work somewhere, because we have to pay our debts. If we don't have work here, we have to go somewhere else and send money to Iceland."

Sigurdsson is packing up his construction equipment and moving to Manitoba next month. By then, Allen's proposed initiative could be in place to help match Sigurdsson with work in Manitoba.

"It'll be very, very strategic," Allen said about the proposed labour initiative.

She hopes to finalize the details of it during a visit to Iceland in a few weeks.