A former ambassador and premier of New Brunswick issued a stark warning about the future of Atlantic Canada on Wednesday, saying the region could be in jeopardy if more isn't done to increase its population through immigration.
Frank McKenna was the opening speaker at a day-long summit being held by the Public Policy Forum in Fredericton.
McKenna, now deputy chairman of the TD Bank Group, said the region has finally woken up to the plight of having both an aging population and an exodus of young people in search of employment.
"I don't think it's overly dramatic to say the future of Atlantic Canada is at stake," he told the crowd of business leaders and academics.
But McKenna, who said he has been talking about the demographic shift in the region since 1995, is more optimistic now that a solution will be found than at any time in the last 25 years.
"All of our provinces have population secretariats and extraordinarily capable people are staffing these population secretariats. ACOA has put its shoulder to the wheel and its resources to the wheel. And the recently signed Atlantic Immigration Pilot is a huge step in the right direction," he said.
Herb Emery, the Vaughan Chair in Regional Economics at the University of New Brunswick, said attracting and retaining immigrants will require greater capital investments from companies.
"Investment is always going to be critical to your growth. If you look at why some economies are rich and others are poor, the biggest difference is the amount of capital per worker in those economies," he said.
But the question was asked from the audience about which should come first — the immigrants or the jobs that will require immigrants to fill them?
Emery said he points to the example of Saskatchewan, where capital came first and the population came in rapidly afterwards.
"If we think about how to increase the opportunities in the region first, we'll get more immigrants in the region and retain a higher percentage of them," Emery said.
A report released this week shows Atlantic Canada has the lowest retention rates for immigrants across Canada.
Nova Scotia has a five-year immigrant retention rate between 2011-2015 of 72 per cent, while Newfoundland and Labrador is at 56 per cent, New Brunswick is at 52 per cent, and P.E.I. is at just 18 per cent.
No province outside Atlantic Canada has a retention rate below 80 per cent.
Emery said there's a need to create good-paying jobs that will keep young people from leaving the region, and retain the immigrants that have arrived.
He said in too many cases, the lack of jobs and supports results in immigrants heading off to larger centres like Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver.
"When you talk to newcomers and they spend three to six months looking for work and they don't have the same supports as say an unemployed Canadian who has paid into Employment Insurance, they are going to look further afield if the opportunities aren't here," Emery said.
However, Lisa Bamford De Gante, executive director of the Multicultural Association of Fredericton, said 92 per cent of Syrian refugees have stayed in the city because they arrived with family and friends.
"We were often able to have extended family come. That is a key factor and one we need to continue to work on," she said.
Bamford De Gante said that social support network is important if people are to settle and stay.
The Fredericton summit kicks off the Public Policy Forum's three-year research project on Atlantic Revitalization, with special focus on immigrant retention.