Premier Dexter calls immigration policy a pressing issue of federal responsibility.

Here is my Top-5 list of what the province can do to improve and promote immigration policy right on our doorstep.

1.   Create a category that recognizes links to the province, such as study history, work history, relatives or close friends – right now, under the federal program, the only family members you can sponsor to come to Canada are your spouse and dependent (under age 22) children. As of January 2014, the parent/grandparent category will reopen with a cap and is expected to fill up within the first few weeks. The only family-linked NS immigration category is the Family Business Worker, which has strict criteria for the type and size of business that can qualify. It nominated a paltry 9 applicants in 2012.

For a province that has benefitted by immigration of families for generations (think: the Lebanese community, the Iranian community), we should be doing more to attract young, educated, skilled people who are motivated to stay in the province due to close connections to the province.  Manitoba’s immigration program awards specific points for connections– why don’t we? 

2.     Follow through with promises made –The slow economy and ebb and flow of layoffs and hire backs in anchor sectors creates of a vacuum of skills and experience in Nova Scotia. Why should a welder stay here and be laid off for 6 months a year when she can get steady work in Alberta year-round? Why should a software developer stay here and earn 66% of what he can earn in Ontario? Temporary Foreign Workers are not dirty little secrets: the law is clear about who can be hired and under what terms. The problems we hear about in the media are a result of lack of enforcement and complacency in following up to ensure legitimacy. The idea that we should convince Nova Scotians to come back to work here is great, but it’s also a bit of a pipe dream (which I have ranted about before) to think that will solve all our labour strains. If it were easier to hire and retain temporary foreign workers, employers here would not be in such a panic about the out-migration of skills to other provinces.

In 2007, the Agreement for Canada-Nova Scotia Co-operation on Immigration reached and in 2010, an annex was signed which facilitated more flexibility with the province to designate certain sectors and groups of individuals to obtain work permits more easily.  But nothing was ever done and the annex was never used. Digital media, big data and financial administration are sectors the province is trying to promote – why not start with those? British Columbia and Ontario have identified sectors, why don’t we?

3.    Do something – anything! – to link provincial immigration with the universities  – in April 2013, unbeknownst to the public before it slipped into the policy guides, the province, I understand on the insistence of the feds (and btw, shame on everyone who was involved in making/allowing that to happen), cut the NS immigration programs off to all graduates of NS schools. This means there is now no reason for any international graduates to stay in Nova Scotia after finishing school. That is the opposite of what we hear and intuitively know about how valuable our International grads are.

Nova Scotia schools offer international students great options for studying here, the provincial immigration office should work with the post-secondary schools to create programs to create immigration categories for those grads. Or at the very least, it should not actively discourage graduates from sticking around once they finish school.

 4.    Kill categories that are unfair or don’t work –  the best known provincial immigration category has been closed for 5 years after falling apart in a massive scandal. It is a bold step to eliminate a category that was created, admitting waste and defeat. Truth be told, the province has canceled more categories than it has kept: entrepreneur, over-22 child, international graduate, agri-food sector.  Those categories were either unmanageable, unpopular, or verged on corrupt.

There is one more category that needs to go: Community Identified.  A lot of people in the immigration business love the category because it is so wide open, flexible and allows “communities” to put people forward who are “established” here. I see it as in conflict of general immigration policy by requiring people to establish here when all they have is temporary status, which is the opposite of what a temporary resident is supposed to do. Worse, it is unwieldy, allows too much discretion, and quite frankly, it does nothing to promote diversity (not to disparage semi-retirees from visa-exempt countries…).

 5.     Speed up the PNP process – the federal government has had a “slash and burn” attitude about immigration programs since 2008, eliminating such categories as the federal entrepreneur and investor streams and freezing and limiting others such as parent/grandparent sponsorship, skilled workers and skilled trades. Even if you find a category you qualify under, you are often left languishing for years waiting for your application to be processed. There is an opportunity here for the Nova Scotia immigration office to do something very simple: speed up processing to make the program more attractive.

For example, right now, if you get nominated by the province for permanent residence, you can also get a “letter of support” that allows you to get a work permit without needing a LMO (Labour Market Opinion) from Service Canada. LMOs currently take around 4 months and are much trickier to get than ever before. Provincial nominations for skilled workers (people with a permanent full time job offer in NS) take about 3 months on average, and then the file is sent for federal processing which takes 1-2 years. If NS could speed up the process, so that it made a decision within, say, 30 days, this would make a huge difference. It would mean people could come on temporary work permits and start their jobs immediately while they awaited federal processing. It would send a message that we want you to come and build your life here.

You can’t get by on charm and looks alone: people need a reason to choose Nova Scotia.