FREDERICTON – Dr. Constantine Passaris has many accolades to his name, most recently receiving a New Brunswick Multicultural Council (NBMC) Legacy Award for four decades of work in the immigration and multiculturalism space in New Brunswick.
One of his key accomplishments was the founding of the NBMC in 1983 to reach the whole province at a time when the multicultural community was growing. The NBMC also liaises with the provincial and federal governments on behalf of those communities.
But Passaris has his own immigration story. He first came to Canada in 1968 as an international student from Athens, Greece. His academic career brought him to Newfoundland, New Brunswick and the U.K. He has since served international and national roles with regards to economics, population growth and human rights, and he’s currently an economics professor at the University of New Brunswick.
Huddle spoke to him about his views on the past, present and future of immigration in New Brunswick.
What’s the landscape of immigration looking like in New Brunswick today?
We are on the precipice of the perfect demographic storm. I say that because we have a lot of significant changes that will cause a continuing decline in our population. One is a decrease in our birthrate. Second is that our young people are leaving the province to seek career and jobs in other parts of Canada and internationally. We’re witnessing the aging of our population – the people who are staying are older. We’re also witnessing a significant labour shortage that over the next few years will amount to 120,000 jobs that will need to be filled. We currently don’t have that capacity.
The statistics and the data clearly show that a decline in size of the provincial population has adverse effects on economic growth and the ability of government to spend on education, healthcare and social services because a smaller population have a smaller labour force, and therefore, the tax revenue for the provincial government is shrinking.
So, immigration is our economic lifeline in terms of growing our population, kick starting and energizing our provincial economy, and filling those jobs that will remain vacant.
We’re not talking about immigrants taking jobs away from New Brunswickers. We’re talking about jobs that have absolutely no one to fill. Some of those jobs create products or services that are required in order to produce other products and services. So you have a very large impact on the economy where not filling a certain job will also damage the prospect if another business being able to produce the products and services that it has been producing in the past.
Have immigrants helped make that better over the years?
I think so. I say immigration is the tide that raises all ships because it’s contributing to filling jobs, creating consumer expenditure, attracting foreign investment, linking New Brunswick with potential export markets in addition to our traditional main export partners in the U.S. We’re bringing in immigrant entrepreneurs that are creating jobs. When you add up all those benefits, the sum total is that as a net balance, immigration is contributing in a positive and constructive way, not just for the immigrants who are coming into New Brunswick, but for all New Brunswickers, so that all New Brunswickers will have jobs, so that their children won’t need to leave and find work elsewhere.
You say the data shows the need for immigrants in New Brunswick. What needs to happen now?
When Minister [Trevor] Holder revealed the [provincial] government’s intent in the form of a report and strategy for population growth a few weeks ago, he underlined the fact that immigration will be an important tool for achieving that. Two things come to that: first, is New Brunswick a welcoming society for the future immigration streams Secondly, will the immigrants coming be able to fill those vacancies that will surface in the next few years?
The retention of immigrants to New Brunswick after the arrive will depend if they feel comfortable, accepted and welcomed in their new communities. So it’s really a matter of all hands on deck in order to make sure that New Brunswickers are welcoming of those new faces to enable them to integrate into all aspects of life here, not only finding a job, but also feeling comfortable sending their kids to school, feeling comfortable when their spouses go to the supermarket to buy their food requirements, and feeling comfortable in the workplace environment. There are a lot of challenges and opportunities for the province in this regard.
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What about the immigrants who came here overly qualified or not quite fitting the jobs that needs to be filled?
There is a myth out there that anybody who wants to come to Canada as an immigrant can come. This is not true. Immigrants apply to come to Canada. They are screened. There is a very rigorous procedure for national security and for the purpose of making sure that the immigrant coming in is not going to be a burden on the economy and on society, but is going to be a positive contributor to creating wealth in the province and the country.
But after they come, they tend to face some challenges. For example, they need to pass some exams in order to join their professions – medical doctors, nurses, and other professionals. Here, we have a bit of a disconnect at two levels.
The first is that their degrees and professional experience outside of Canada aren’t fully recognized. Second, their ability to join their profession is protected by certain professional organizations that say, ‘yes you’ve got experience overseas, but you don’t have experience in Canada, therefore we cant grant you a license to operate.’ These are hiccups that need to be worked out. Because our immigration policy and the potential impact of those immigrants are disconnecting. These issues have been on the table for a while but we don’t seem to be able to resolve them. Now would be a good time to come to a workable arrangement where this transfer of human capital, knowledge and experience overseas is put to good use in New Brunswick and Canada.
The conversation around immigration can get heated and you’ve previously talked about having dialogue at an emotional level. What do you mean by that? And how should New Brunswick’s efforts shift?
The statistics is clear on an intellectual basis. I think about 40 per cent of the population get it.
But there is a portion of the population – I don’t know what the exact figures are – that legitimately say, ‘wait a minute, you’re going to bring in immigrants to New Brunswick? Buddy, last week I was laid off from my job. I get up in the morning and I see an empty room in my house because my son or daughter is now working in Calgary, and you’re telling me that bringing more immigrants into a province that cannot provide jobs for its local people is good for me?’
This is a legitimate question. It has an emotional aspect because clearly, people are hurting because of this economic situation. We can’t just say, ‘Look at the statistics. Immigration is good for you.’ We need to have a dialogue with them to get to the roots of their anxieties and concerns.
It’s not a matter of an immigration expert like me saying ‘don’t worry, immigration is going to be good for you.’ We need the provincial, federal and municipal governments, and employers to say the same thing and articulate how those unfilled job vacancies in the future are going to hurt their bottom line and their ability to continue to provide products and services that they have provided in the past. We need stakeholders like the NBMC and the city multicultural organizations to stand up and have a role in public education.
Public education has always been key for multicultural organizations, but I think we need to up our game right now. Because these legitimate questions that are being asked by a number of New Brunswickers shouldn’t be put aside. They should be answered in a very concrete and informative manner so that we can change their minds.
I don’t expect 100% of them to be convinced and I think we need to live with that. But I think if we have the parameters for constructive, informative and respectful dialogue, a lot of them will be convinced.
You have to go where they are instead of asking them to come to your events. You go to their social clubs. You go to the work venues. You go to their unions.
What about refugees? That’s another one of the topics around immigration that gets heated.
New Brunswick received a large number of Syrian refugees in the last cycle. They’ve been integrating very well and they’ve made a positive contribution to population growth here. But there is a misconception in the public’s mind that coming as a refugee, all you have to do is say ‘I’m a refugee’ and the doors of Canada open wide.
Researchers who have studied this say it’s twice as difficult for a refugee to come into Canada compared to an economic immigrant. Because they first have to meet the UN definition of who is a refugee, which states very clearly that person’s life is at risk if they stayed at their country of origin. Secondly, there are millions and millions of refugees. If Canada has an open door policy for refugees, we would have millions and millions of refugees here. But that’s not the case. Because after they meet the UN’s requirements, they have to prove they can become contributors and not rely on government support from the day they arrive in Canada until the end of life.
And international students – how do they play a role in population growth?
We need to attract international students to this province for two reasons: to fill in the gap that the birth rate has left open and therefore provide post-secondary institutions in New Brunswick with a revenue stream, and because international students become a lead up into permanent residency here. The unfortunate thing is that when we compare New Brunswick’s ability to attract international students to the national average, or Nova Scotia or P.E.I., we’re not doing very well.
I think we need to put that as a priority for our post-secondary institutions and to provide the resources for units working under capable leadership within those universities to make a consistent, persistent and effective effort to attract international students.
How do you see the future of immigration and multiculturalism in New Brunswick?
As a result of this release of the New Beginnings population growth report and strategy by the provincial government, I am very optimistic that we’re going to turn the corner with respect to immigration. We’ve got our ducks all lined up and it is now a matter of implementing all those action items that are listed in the report.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.