From China to P.E.I.: The big picture

In the space of a few years, the Chinese have become P.E.I.'s largest visible minority.

A new wave of immigration

Parson Miao, president of P.E.I.'s Chinese Association, greets Mu Wen Fang as she arrives at Charlottetown Airport from China. Miao was at the airport greeting newcomers almost every day in February. (CBC)

Anyone familiar with Charlottetown who left in 2003 and returned 10 years later would notice the difference immediately.

You see it in the grocery stores — bok choy, pomelo, daikon, bitter melon, Chinese egg plant — specialty Chinese produce piled up in large quantities on the supermarket shelves.  And then there are the faces, far more Asian faces than there were a decade ago. These are not the familiar tourists basking in the July sunshine. They are here braving the coldest days of January.

What can be easily seen is backed up in government statistics. It is perhaps the biggest change in the makeup of the Island's population in more than a century. The number of people claiming Chinese ethnicity grew from 250 in 2006 to 1,920 in 2011, quickly growing from a mere speck on the provincial demographic chart to comprising more than one per cent of the population.

From the start of 2009 to September 2013 the P.E.I. Association for Newcomers to Canada registered 6,019 new immigrants, and more than half were from China.

And they are still coming. Parson Miao, president of P.E.I.'s Chinese Association, told CBC News he made a lot of visits to the airport in February.

"In this month, almost every day," said Miao.

"Almost every day. I come here and meet newcomers."

The Chinese are now P.E.I.'s most populous visible minority. There are twice as many Chinese as Lebanese, who had occupied that position for a century.

Frank Zhou brought his family to the Island from China about 10 years ago.

"At the time we don't have a lot of support because the Chinese community is very small. At that time, I think we only had 150 people," said Zhou.

"Now, it's completely different. We have over 1,000 families here, we have all kinds of friends from all over China. And the community is growing. The grocery stores, there's more than three already. So it's quite a change."

A controversial program

The roots of this change go back to 2001, with the launch of a joint federal-provincial program to boost immigration called the provincial nominee program.

PNP made little impact on P.E.I. initially. Net international migration to the province was unchanged through 2003. It picked up slightly in 2004 and 2005, and began to grow significantly in 2006.

The new Liberal government under Robert Ghiz, which came to power in June 2007, saw in PNP an opportunity to achieve its goal of population growth through immigration. As recently as 1990, P.E.I. was experiencing significant natural growth, with births outnumbering deaths by about 1,000 annually. But through the 1990s that source of population growth fell off dramatically, hitting close to zero in 2000 and bouncing around under 500 through to 2011.

If the population was going to grow, it would have to be through immigration.

Early in 2008, the federal government told P.E.I. it was winding PNP down. It told the province it could nominate another 2,000 potential immigrants. The province got to work and reached that target by late summer.

How it reached that goal has been the subject of enormous controversy ever since. The most used section of the PNP, the Immigrant Partner Program, allowed potential immigrants to come to P.E.I. in exchange for investing in a local business. The program was criticized for how eligible companies were selected, for how the immigrants often had no idea what they were investing in, and because most of the money went to middlemen, not to business investment.

But as that scandal recedes, a changed population of the Island remains.

A new home

Gus and Jenny Zhang moved to P.E.I. two years ago from Nanjing City. Jenny was a college instructor and Gus still owns a major auto parts manufacturing company there.

Jenny Zhang immigrated to P.E.I. so her son could have a more balanced life. (CBC)

They came to P.E.I. because they were looking for a different kind of life for their baby boy, Alex. They wanted a move away from the crowded, fast-paced life in urban China, and different kind of education.

"A lot of people immigrate to Canada only for the education for their children. That is the big reason for us to come here," said Jenny Zhang.

She said their hope is that Alex can lead a balanced life here: focusing equally on school, family and friends. She's also hopeful that in Canada he'll be able to get into a good university.

"In China, we have a lot of people and not enough school for those people," she said.

"So you need to work hard, very hard, to go to a good school, then find a job."

The Zhangs hope to make life work on P.E.I., but it hasn't been easy. Gus wants to set up a branch of his company on the Island, but his English is limited, as are his business contacts.

He still doesn't know if they'll be able to stay.

"Depends on my business here," he said.

"No business, then in many years, maybe I move to other place."

A poor record of retaining immigrants

Many immigrants have done that already.

Another criticism of the PNP on the Island was that while the program was very good at attracting immigrants, the province did a very poor job of keeping them here.

Government statistics bear this out. As international migration increased, so did interprovincial migration. In 2011, while international migration remained high, it was almost completely cancelled out by people leaving the province.

But while many left the province, many also stayed. An independent report prepared for the province by the accounting firm Grant Thornton estimated the retention rate to be just 37 per cent. But, the report went on to say, that was still enough to see an estimated 3,662 newcomers make P.E.I. their permanent home between 2001 and 2010.

The impact of those newcomers, in particular with so many of them being from China, is being felt across society – in business, education, food – and in ways that are both cultural and economic.

In the coming months, CBC P.E.I. will tell the stories of these newcomers: why they chose P.E.I., how they are adjusting to life on the Island, and how the Island is adjusting to them.

For mobile device users: View a table of countries of origin for P.E.I. immigrants here

View a chart of P.E.I. net migration statistics here