Facing a labour shortage, New Brunswick's Acadian Peninsula turns to newcomers
A wave of international students is helping some businesses keep running
When Jeremie Lebans first started running a Shippagan coffee shop, he was always searching for people to hire.
Then a few job applications trickled in from international students — and word spread.
"We had many applicants that had just recently arrived in Canada," Lebans said in French. "Many of them started to talk among themselves and saw it was a good place to work. It grew with time."
Most of the staff at the bustling Tim Hortons — or 80 per cent — are now international students, tied to growth in enrolment at the University of Moncton's Shippagan campus.
The wave of newcomers is bringing hope to New Brunswick's Acadian Peninsula, a rural region facing an aging and shrinking population. That trend is leaving communities, such as Shippagan, with a labour shortage.
With the increased arrival of international students, the Tim Hortons became one of the first to look to them as a solution. In five years, more than 100 newcomers — largely from Francophone Africa — have staffed the kitchen and kept coffee brewing during the morning rush.
"There's much more diversity now in Shippagan. It's really fun to have," Lebans said. "We're seeing many businesses start to hire international students."
The University of Moncton's Shippagan campus is helping shape the changing population of the Acadian Peninsula. While many Atlantic Canadian universities have seen enrolment decline during the pandemic — international students have boosted its population.
It's a contrasting shift from when Yves Bourgeois, the dean of studies, first arrived on campus about three and a half years ago.
Already small classes were below capacity, making it difficult to justify certain programs and course offerings.
The French-language university has historically recruited about a third of New Brunswick's high school graduates. But with a stagnant and aging population, that source of incoming students is shrinking.
"You read the tea leaves and you see that we have to diversify," Bourgeois said.
Starting with a small group of international students, recruitment efforts have grown that segment to a third of the campus population.
Five years ago, the university had 15 international students from three countries. Now there's 160 from 14 countries. The business program has been the biggest draw, with more than 40 international students participating in the entrepreneurship club.
Bourgeois said the uptick has been constant over the past few years.
"It required a lot of work from recruiting to admissions to enrolment to student experience," he said. "We've had to change mindsets and change culture and add programs."
International students are also arriving to study at the region's community colleges, with campuses in Caraquet and Shippagan.
On the streets of the Acadian Peninsula's communities, help wanted notices are visible on signs and at storefronts.
Agathe Robichaud hears about the labour shortage frequently. For the past decade, she's worked as the coordinator of the Comité d'accueil, d'intégration et d'établissement des nouveaux arrivants de la Péninsule acadienne (CAIENA), the region's immigration settlement agency.
She has seen the Peninsula go from welcoming a trickle of newcomers each year — to hundreds.
"The problem is we can't find a miracle situation right away. Even if we have a lot of kids, it won't solve the labour problem we're currently facing," Robichaud said in a French interview. "So the immediate solution, that seems effective and that seems to respond to the need, is immigration."
The region is home to a thriving fishing industry and agriculture sector, as one of the main blueberry producers in North America. About 2,000 people work in more than a dozen fish processing plants scattered across the coast.
New Brunswick's increase in the number of people over 65 is being felt across the province. But on the Peninsula, the effects of a declining birth rate and outward migration are even stronger.
The population of young people in the region is dropping fast. The region lost 40% of people under 20 between 2001 and 2017, according to Statistics Canada.
Seniors greatly outnumber children, driving the median age up to 51 in 2016.
The demographic shift is making it harder to keep industries operating.
In the fish processing plants, the average worker is in their 50s.
Robichaud said businesses in the region are already closing their doors, as longtime owners can't find successors to take over. Some are turning down contracts.
"We have job offers that are shared every week and we see that it's every industry that's affected by the labour shortage," she said.
'A real culture shift'
The shops and businesses on the streets of Shippagan show signs of the changing face of the Acadian Peninsula, as international students search for part-time jobs.
They're also finding work in Tracadie, Caraquet and other communities in the region.
French accents can be heard — not just from around the Acadian Peninsula — but from around the francophone world.
"You see it. And for a lot of local residents, there's not been that diversity in years past," said Bourgeois, the university's dean.
He remembers seeing job postings around town when he first arrived. Many of those openings have since been filled — including at Tim Hortons.
Naomie Zodi began working at the coffee shop about a month after arriving from the Democratic Republic of the Congo in September. She's studying business at the University of Moncton and wanted Canadian work experience.
"It's a bilingual province, it motivated me to come to New Brunswick," she said in French. "And it's a small province with a different culture."
Zodi is interested in staying in the region after her studies, to become a permanent resident.
International students currently account for about a third of newcomers to the region.
Bourgeois said the change in diversity was first met with curiosity by locals, including at the coffee shop. He remembers an older man, more accustomed to the local Acadian variety of French, who needed someone to help him understand the international French spoken at the cash register.
Every international student at the university who has looked for work has found a job.
"It seemed to have lit a switch in a lot of the other local employers, they're having difficulty hiring and they're noticing a lot of other international students working at Tim Hortons," he said.
"There's been a real culture shift. That's probably what's been the most heartening about this, is just seeing how people have warmed up."
Protecting the future
Many Acadians remain hopeful that young people, who have left the Peninsula for work or studies, will decide to return home.
But there's fear with the continued population decline, cuts to services could follow.
Robichaud said immigration is needed, particularly in the short term — and the message is starting to get across.
"I would tell you the mentality is starting to change, because of the need," she said. "There's an opening towards immigration because of the needs of the labour shortage."
Some community members would like to see international students settle in the region, taking over businesses, starting new ones and staffing care homes and hospitals.
While Acadians are known to be welcoming, Robichaud said there's still work to be done.
Many communities have been home to the same families for generations, making it difficult for newcomers to fully integrate.
She hopes acceptance will continue to grow, and bring new life to a region known for its vibrant culture and coastal landscapes.
"I'd like the Acadian Peninsula to stay dynamic, because I think we're a beautiful part of the country that has its place," Robichaud said.
"If we do nothing, we'll be speaking of the Acadian Peninsula in the past."
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