From China to Charlottetown: Immigration boom skips rural P.E.I.

Over the past seven years an influx of thousands of immigrants has transformed Charlottetown, but left other areas of P.E.I. largely untouched.

Part 5 in CBC Prince Edward Island's China to P.E.I. series

Most immigrants are settling in central P.E.I. (CBC)

Over the past seven years an influx of thousands of immigrants has transformed Charlottetown, but left other areas of P.E.I. largely untouched.

The population of the Island as whole is on the rise. The 3.2 per cent increase from 2006 to 2011 is the biggest in the region. But that growth has been concentrated around Charlottetown. The population increase for Charlottetown, Stratford and Cornwall for that period is almost exactly equal to the total growth for the province, meaning growth in other areas of the province is stagnant.

Numbers from Statistics Canada confirm the trend's connection to immigration. More than 9,000 immigrants have landed on P.E.I. since 2007, and only a few hundred of those settled in Kings and Prince counties.

Rural P.E.I. a tough sell

The majority of immigrants to P.E.I. over the last seven years have been from China. 

Paul Yin, who immigrated in 2010 and now owns Paul's Flowers in Charlottetown, says Charlottetown is the favoured destination for the Chinese arriving on the Island.

Paul Yin enjoys the benefits of community that come from living in Charlottetown. (CBC)

Yin told CBC News his family did spend some time looking at other Island communities to settle in, but they ultimately decided the provincial capital was the place for them.

Yin said rural PEI doesn't seem to have as strong a business environment as Charlottetown. In addition, there is a much bigger Chinese community in the capital, which helped him and his family get settled.

He also pointed to the specialized services. With the thousands of Chinese immigrants concentrated in the Charlottetown area come Chinese grocery stores, language schools, and Mandarin- and Cantonese-speaking staff at city banks.

That makes life very convenient for the Chinese community, Yin said. 

Many immigrants are also moving from highly urban environments. The transition to relatively tiny Charlottetown is difficult, and to rural P.E.I. would be that much more extreme.

Making a life in Souris

There are, of course, exceptions: Chinese immigrants who have found they prefer making a home outside of Charlottetown.

Rita Zhao and her family immigrated in 2010, and now live half the year just outside Souris. Last year they bought the Rollo Bay Greens golf course.

Rita Zhao, unlike many of her fellow Chinese immigrants to P.E.I., prefers living in a rural area. (CBC)

"Good view," Zhao said proudly.

"You stand here, you can look at the water.  So it's a good place."

The Zhaos live in a house next to the golf course for half the year and spend the other half in Charlottetown, where they run a Chinese restaurant.

But Zhao said she prefers the Souris area.

"I think Souris is good. I like it here … more space," she said.

"The local people, they're very, very kind."

Zhao and her family are from Beijing, and Souris Mayor David MacDonald said they are a very welcome addition to the community. MacDonald would like to see more immigrants settling in the area. Right now the Zhaos are one of just two Chinese families living in the Souris area.

"The town could obviously stand more bodies," said MacDonald.

Souris Mayor David MacDonald is looking for more immigrants to settle in his town. (CBC)

"We've dropped in the past 50 years, I understand, about 300 people."

And that is a big difference for a town of about 1,200 people.

Zhao would also like to see more Chinese people moving into rural P.E.I.

"Maybe they will be here and buy some businesses," she said.

Zhao believes the concerns about lack of services in rural P.E.I. are overrated. For most people from China, she said, the one-hour drive from Souris to Charlottetown is not a long one.

"In China, in Beijing, if you go to work it's, at least, the drive is two hours," she said.

"Always traffic jams. But here, no problem."

While Zhao is loving life in Souris, she is clearly in a very small minority of Chinese immigrants.