Immigration at a 'standstill,' compounding P.E.I.'s economic woes

P.E.I.'s population growth is expected to fall by 80 per cent due to pandemic restrictions halting new immigrants.

Province focused on helping those who came before COVID continue path to citizenship

Paul Yin, head of the Chinese-Canadian Association of Prince Edward Island, says the path toward permanent residency for some Island immigrants is in jeopardy because the COVID-19 epidemic has forced them to close their business or resulted in them being laid off from their jobs. (Kerry Campbell/CBC)

The P.E.I. government says it's focusing on making sure immigrants who were already in the province when COVID-19 struck remain on the path to permanent residency, while at the same time bracing for a further hit to its economy as immigration to the province has slowed to a trickle.

"Right now we're on a standstill," said Matthew MacKay, minister for economic growth. "We just don't know how long this is going to last."

For the past two years, P.E.I. has led all provinces in both population growth and economic growth. Performance in both categories has been spurred on by international immigration, with 2,267 newcomers settling in the province in 2018-19, according to the most recent estimates from Statistics Canada.

But on March 18, the federal government closed Canada's borders to all but essential workers. An exception was made for permanent residents whose applications were approved prior to that date.

As of June 1, the P.E.I. government said it had admitted 55 permanent residents since the border closed, those considered essential workers in the trucking and health care industries.

Those immigrants arrived through either the provincial nominee program or the Atlantic immigration pilot, MacKay said, and have been required to self-isolate for 14 days.

The province said it had provided extensions on invitations for hundreds of other immigrants who had been selected prior to that date, but that those immigrants currently are not allowed to enter the province.

For four straight months P.E.I. has also foregone monthly draws to select new immigrants to invite to the province, saying those will be made up at a later date.

'Something nobody's seen before'

Government is now projecting population growth for the year ending July 1, 2020 will drop to 1.25 per cent compared to 2.19 per cent the year before.

But the big drop is expected a year from now, when population growth is expected to fall to just 0.42 per cent — less than a fifth of what it was in 2019.

That's expected to deepen the financial hit in a province where all of its primary industries are impacted by the pandemic — especially tourism, which is expected to draw just a fraction of its usual revenues in a province that's still not allowing other Canadians to enter.

"We've relied so much on immigration and we've been rolling on such a high over the last few years in the economy," said MacKay. "We didn't know how long it was going to last. And to see what slowed us down, with this COVID-19, it's something nobody's ever seen before."

P.E.I.'s Department of Finance estimates population growth has been adding an extra 1.5 per cent in annual GDP growth. Subtracting that amount from the province's economic performance in 2018-19 would move it from top spot among the provinces to seventh place.

For some, pandemic jeopardizes path to citizenship

Paul Yin, president of the Chinese-Canadian Association of P.E.I., said newcomers to the province have been affected by the pandemic the same as everyone else — their businesses have had to close, and immigrant workers have been laid off.

The difference for those taking part in most of P.E.I.'s immigration programs is that operating a business or working in a specified job is a requirement for them to eventually be nominated by the province for permanent residency.

P.E.I.'s Minister of Economic Growth and Tourism Minister Matthew MacKay says immigration in the province, which has provided a tremendous boost to the economy in recent years, is now at a standstill. (Ken Linton/CBC)

Speaking through an interpreter, Yin said the province needs to make exceptions to allow immigrants to remain on the path to citizenship.

"Because it's not their intention to close the business right now," said Yin. "It's just like for everybody else, they have to. But I think as long as they are willing to continue their business, they should be accepted."

Workers given time to find new jobs

A spokesperson for the Department of Economic Growth told CBC via email that the province has been "working with the federal government and other provinces to minimize the impact that COVID-19 has had on nominees and future applicants."

Where workers have been laid off they've been provided with time to find other employment, the spokesperson explained, saying the break in employment "would not impact their permanent resident application as long as they have returned to the workforce and continue to live in the province."

The Greater Charlottetown Area Chamber of Commerce has asked the province for a detailed plan showing how P.E.I. will open back up to non-residents, everyone from seasonal residents, to international visitors, to those participating in federal and provincial immigration programs.

"Immigration was an important economic driver from a labour force perspective prior to the pandemic, and I think it will continue to be that kind of driver as well," said the chamber's interim CEO Gerard Adams.

"We just need this point of entry plan to try to get us past the pandemic."

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