'Let's go to Winnipeg': How one immigration program is credited with attracting 130,000 people to Manitoba

The Provincial Nominee Program reaches 20 years in operation and has brought over 130,000 people to Manitoba.

Manitoba Provincial Nominee Program began in 1998 and marked its 20th anniversary at the legislature today

Hipolito (JR) Alibin and his brother Frank credit the Provincial Nominee Program with closing the deal for a Filipino restaurant franchise. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

The Alibins believe they are walking talking testament to the success of the Manitoba Provincial Nominee Program (MPNP).

The five siblings — four brothers and a sister — all have a role in the family's effort to attract iconic Filipino chain Max's Restaurant to Winnipeg, and they credit the MPNP for being a closer in getting the deal done. 

Since it began in 1998, the MPNP is credited with attracting 130,000 people. Ninety per cent of those get jobs in under a year and nearly that amount end up staying in Manitoba permanently. A ceremony Thursday at the legislature celebrated two decades of the program.

Recently, the PC government added a $500 fee to the program to clear a backlog of thousands of applicants and enhance the service.

Hipolito Alibin, or JR as he likes to be called, is an accountant by trade and is the family member responsible for the financial side of the restaurant expanding to Winnipeg. He says the steady growth of the Filipino community in Manitoba made the province attractive to the Manilla-based chain.

"It has become an organic market for Max's to come here, really. It was just natural and our family recognized it a few years ago," Alibin told CBC News in the parking lot next to the restaurant's location on St. James Street.

A population of over 80,000 Filipinos in the city wasn't quite enough to close the deal though, says Alibin. 
Max's Restaurant location will employ more than 50 people and open early in 2019. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

Several years ago executives at Max's Restaurant (one of the oldest and most successful in the Philippines) had expanded to cities in Alberta, Ontario and British Columbia and then ran into a snag. The federal government had clawed back foreign work permits, and it became difficult to attract Filipinos to work in the restaurants.

A key to the success of the chain outside the Philippines was to have expatriate staff cook and serve the traditional meals.

The Alibin family, however, had an ace in their pocket when they made their pitch to Max's people. 
Former Manitoba premier Gary Filmon launched a seven-year effort for a Manitoba immigration program after realizing the federal government didn't understand the province's labour needs. (Justin Fraser/CBC)

Manitoba had a highly successful, long-standing nominee program that was bringing thousands of Filipinos to the province every year.

"For Max's company, that has been a big factor. And that's why they said, 'Yes, let's go ahead. Let's go to Winnipeg,'" Alibin said.

Now, the Alibin family has leased a brand-new building in the Polo Park area and will hire at least 50 staff in anticipation of opening in early 2019.

MPNP's journey didn't start in Manitoba: Filmon

At the Manitoba legislature Thursday, the provincial government held a celebration to mark the 20th year of the program and invited former premier Gary Filmon to speak at the event.

For the one-time Progressive Conservative premier an eye-opener came while touring overseas on trade missions. 

Invariably when speaking to trade representatives and economic development staff at Canadian embassies all over the world Filmon discovered a complete lack of knowledge about Manitoba's economy. 

The pervasive impression of this province was it was an agriculturally-based economy and it forced Filmon to explain that financial services, manufacturing and other industries led the way. And led Filmon to conclude Manitoba needed its own way of attracting immigrants to feed the growth.

"They didn't know what our needs were," Filmon told a packed audience at the Rotunda of the legislature.

An opening to wiggle some control on immigration from Ottawa came after Quebec had been awarded similar powers after the failure of the Meech Lake Accord. The federal government gave that province the right to select immigrants based on their knowledge of French.

Filmon had other ideas in mind. Immigrants who could have a direct impact on Manitoba's labour needs, but Ottawa wasn't of a mind to give Manitoba similar powers.

Filmon says it was tantamount to federal bureaucrats and politicians throwing "gravel into the workings of government" and a seven-year-long skirmish began, involving ministers from his PC government and subsequently two from NDP regimes.

Ultimately, Manitoba prevailed and in 1998 the deal was signed, allowing the province to develop a path that 65 per cent of immigrants coming here now chose to take.

Filmon, whose ancestors on both sides of his family are immigrants, is pleased to see the program so successful and gratified it continues.

"We can go around this room and find the stories of everyone. They are the children and grandchildren and great grandchildren of immigrants, and they have changed and transformed our province and made it strong for the future," Filmon told the audience.

We can go around this room and find the stories of everyone. They are the children and grandchildren and great grandchildren of immigrants, and they have changed and transformed our province and made it strong for the future.- Former Manitoba premier Gary Filmon

They are words the Alibin family seem to embrace. 

Frank Alibin, in charge of IT and marketing for the Max's Restaurant, has children he's proud to say have grown up in Winnipeg. The whole family's arrival in the province starts from an aunt who arrived in the city in the late 60s to work in the garment industry.

Now, the family's restaurant venture is a chance to link their new roots in Manitoba to a country they once called home.

"The kids, they are born and raised here. I want them to have and keep that Filipino culture in them. They love Winnipeg, and they love Canada, but I don't want my kids to forget where they came from," Alibin said.

Program that brings new people to Manitoba marks 20th anniversary

4 years ago
Duration 2:34
Manitoba is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the provincial nominee program. It's aimed at bringing new people to the province and has attracted more than 130 thousand new Manitobans.


Sean Kavanagh

Former CBC reporter

Sean Kavanagh was a reporter for CBC Manitoba from 2003-21. He covered some of the seminal events in Manitoba, from floods to elections.