Nfld. & Labrador·Weekend Briefing

Despite Canada's highest jobless rate, here's why N.L. is recruiting Ukrainian refugees

In addition to meeting a critical humanitarian need, Newfoundland and Labrador has made no bones about looking to Ukrainian refugees to fill job vacancies that have gone unfilled. As John Gushue writes, the province's employment situation is more complex than it may first appear.

The only province to lose population in the last census, N.L. is seeking outside solutions

Nine-year-old Zoriana greets her sister, Sofiia, moments after she and their mother, Natalia, arrived from Poland in St. John's on Monday. The government of Newfoundland and Labrador chartered a flight for 166 Ukrainian refugees, and is planning others. (Greg Locke/The Canadian Press)

It was quite the scene. A plane full of Ukrainian refugees landed Monday evening in St. John's, with a large group of well-wishers waiting inside the airport, waving flags with vibrant blue and yellow hues.

Politicians were there, too, of course, making the timing of the event — it just happened to coincide with the supper-hour news — that much more conspicuous.

Newfoundland and Labrador thus became the first province to fly Ukrainian refugees, who have fled their country in droves since Russia invaded their country in February.

In addition to meeting a critical humanitarian need, Newfoundland and Labrador has made no bones about looking to Ukrainian refugees to fill job vacancies. Gerry Byrne, the minister of immigration, population growth and skills, said ahead of the flight's arrival that some of the 166 people on the flight from Poland had jobs they could go to directly (assuming after a good night's sleep).

Premier Andrew Furey said Monday's charter would not be the last. He also emphasized that N.L.'s response was founded from a place of compassion and helping.

A Ukrainian man was happy to arrive in St. John's on Monday. (Greg Locke/The Canadian Press)

"We knew we could step up on the global stage, which we have [done] before, whether it's 9/11 or in World War I," said Furey, whose government this winter created a desk in Poland to assist with refugees flooding across the Ukrainian border.

It's difficult to grasp the magnitude of that flood of humanity. On Thursday, a United Nations organization updated its estimate of the mass migration to say more than six million people have now fled Ukraine in less than three months.

To put that number in perspective, it is more than the population of British Columbia — and with both N.L. and Prince Edward Island put in there, too.

A safe haven comes first, Furey says

Furey told CBC on Monday that there were about 600 to 700 Ukrainians "now in the queue" in Poland to come to Newfoundland and Labrador.

He also underscored that in addition to a humanitarian response, Newfoundland and Labrador could use the boost to its labour pool.

WATCH | See scenes from Monday night's landing of N.L.'s first chartered flight for Ukrainian refugees: 

Ukrainian refugees land in St. John’s

3 months ago
Duration 3:38
More than 150 Ukrainian refugees are getting acquainted with their new home province. A planeload of 166 people touched down in St. John’s on Monday evening. Hear from one of the province’s newest residents and watch a joyful reunion in the video above.

"Certainly we all know that there are labour demands here. But more importantly, this needs to be a place, a safe haven," he said.

"So all those details about [labour market] saturations and equilibrium of immigration versus … job employment opportunities, we'll sort that out with time," he said. "First and foremost, we want to provide a safe haven and a place of hope and optimism for these people."

At face value, it may seem odd that the province with highest unemployment rate in Canada is eager to bring in new job-seekers.

But the job market here is much more complex than it looks, and there are key factors — where someone lives, and how old and skilled they are — connected to the story.

N.L.'s unemployment rate in April was 10.8 per cent, significantly higher than other Canadian provinces. Those most likely to be unemployed fall into two main groups: those under 25, who are trying to get their feet in a door and get a career rolling, and those over 54, who are trying to keep a career rolling, or at least pay the bills. Similar anxieties, at different ends of the age spectrum.

Demographic dilemmas

Despite that number, it's very common these days to see help wanted signs in the St. John 's area, and to hear from employers in multiple industries — from the booming tech sector to home care to the service economy — say they are having trouble recruiting workers. At least, again, in the metro area.

'Help Wanted' signs have become common sights again in St. John's. Employers ranging from gas stations to tech companies advertise for new workers. (Paul Daly/CBC)

Indeed, location is a big factor here.

The unemployment rate for St. John's in April was 7.2 per cent. Not the lowest among Canadian cities (bonjour, Quebec City, which is at 2.6 per cent), but comparable to Calgary (7.1 per cent) and not really that far from Toronto, at 6.4 per cent.

Once you factor St. John's out of the equation, a grimmer picture emerges for the rest of the province. The rest of the province has an unemployment rate of 15.9 per cent.

The province's well-known demographic problems — there are now far more older adults than there are young children — provide the sobering subtext behind all these conversations. The recently released national census showed N.L. was the only province to lose population during that five-year period.

The number of births has been under 4,000 per year for a while, and that's expected to continue for years. By contrast, the number of annual deaths is already more than 5,000 per year, and that number is expected to climb to as much as 8,000 per year in the next two decades.

The Ukrainians are arriving to a job market that may be recruiting, but has some issues. New Canadians have pointed out that there are many problems to be resolved, particularly a lack of consistent medicare coverage.

'This could really help our economy'

Nonetheless, employers are looking. Wanda Cuff-Young, who works with the agency Work Global Canada, told CBC News last month that she quickly heard from a wide number of professions when she posted an email address in a Facebook group aiming to connect refugees with work and amenities.

"Nurses, IT people, engineers, lecturers, marketing … they come from a very diverse background," Cuff-Young told The St. John's Morning Show.

Ukrainian refugees arrived in Newfoundland this week, but what supports will they need if local officials want to help them build a life there? Matt Galloway talks to new arrival Lesya Dunaevskaya, local volunteer Brandon Ramey, and Tony Fang, a professor of economics at Memorial University of Newfoundland.

Right now, the first planeload of Ukrainian refugees are settling in, and groups like the Association of New Canadians are hustling to put in place the creature comforts that people need. Housing, child care and other issues need to be sorted, as much as matching newcomers with work they can take on.

Wanda Cuff-Young flicks through a pile of resumés from Ukrainians looking for employment in Newfoundland and Labrador. (Caroline Hillier/CBC)

As well, no one knows how long the Ukrainians may stay. The Russian war is still raging, and it's not at all unlikely that some on the chartered flights will want to seek their fortune in other provinces.

But Cuff-Young is optimistic, and points out that Newfoundland and Labrador has long benefited from people arriving from other shores.

"This could really help our economy," said Cuff-Young. "New people bring new business, new ideas."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


John Gushue

CBC News

John Gushue is the digital senior producer with CBC News in St. John's.

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