Small Is Better For Immigrants

Small is better for immigrants
Newcomers who settle in towns earn more than big-city peers, StatsCan finds

Jan 26, 2008 04:30 AM
Nicholas Keung
The Toronto Star

Contrary to conventional wisdom, immigrants in smaller Canadian cities and rural areas fare better financially than those who flock to Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal.

Newcomers to small towns earned on average 14 per cent less than native-born residents during their first three years in Canada, a Statistics Canada study released yesterday found. But their big-city peers earned 37 per cent less.

The small-town advantage became more pronounced over time. Not only did the income gap narrow in small urban centres, by the fourth year immigrants earned slightly more on average than the native-born population. By the 11th year, their earnings were 18 per cent above the median.

Big-city immigrants earned 22 per cent less than Canadian-born workers after four years, and almost 10 per cent less after 12 years.

The report suggests that immigrants can settle across the country, said Tom Carter, geography professor at the University of Winnipeg.

“At the provincial level, this is a very positive report. Many small cities and rural communities are struggling, trying to address local economic and demographic issues, dealing with aging population and (lack of) growth.”

According to Immigrants in the Hinterlands, the report that examined income tax returns from 1982 to 2005, big-city Canadians had a median income of $28,100 in 2005, compared with $22,500 in small towns and rural areas. For immigrants, incomes were lowest in big cities ($16,800) and highest in small urban areas ($19,500).

Demographics explain some of the disparity, said Margaret Walton-Roberts, geography professor at Wilfrid Laurier University. Three-quarters of immigrants in smaller cities were fluent in an official language, compared with 61.5 per cent of those in large cities.

While 61 per cent of the small-town immigrants were from Europe and the United States, those groups represented only 24 per cent of the big-city newcomers.

Carter said the gap could also be the result of provincial nominee programs, which help employers to fast-track immigration processing for skilled people they would like to hire. This gives newcomers an incentive to settle in smaller places where there are labour shortages.

In Manitoba, the number of immigrants admitted through the nominee program grew from 400 in 1999 to 5,400 in 2006. The percentage of newcomers settling outside Winnipeg has risen to 25 per cent from 10 per cent.

“It's just easier for immigrants to connect with employers in smaller communities, where the chambers of commerce, councils, employers and service agencies all know each other and work as a team to develop immigrant attraction and retention plans,” Carter explained.

Javier Bernal, who arrived in Windsor from Colombia in 2003 with his wife, Astrid, and their two sons, said it's easier to build connections in a smaller city, and the cost of living is lower. The 31-year-old university business grad worked in a restaurant and factory before going to college to earn a business diploma, with support from the local YMCA.

“It wasn't easy at the beginning. We didn't feel accepted,” said Bernal, who makes more than $60,000 a year as a financial adviser.

“But it's a process … And once you get to know the community, it's easier to find a job.”

Despite their success in small centres, Jacquie Rumiel, who heads the Y's New Canadians program, said many of her clients struggle with job barriers.

“I have mixed response to the report findings,” she said. “Their success very much depends on labour market trends and the willingness of employers to recognize their education and job experience.”