Posted on December 30, 2010

Immigrant Influx Changing Face of P.E.I.

Kathryn Blaze Carlson, National Post (Toronto), December 29, 2010

Prince Edward Island, once labelled as a province with a “strong cultural norm of sameness,” is in the midst of a transformation, spurred by a rate of international immigration that outpaces even Canada’s western destinations.

P.E.I. marked the highest population gain of any province or territory in the third quarter of this year, boasting a population bump of 0.7% between July and September, according to recently released data from Statistics Canada. For an island of just 143,200 people, the arrival of 1,200 immigrants marks the highest number seen since 1971 and continues a trend toward a major demographic shift.

“The face of Prince Edward Island–especially that of the Greater Charlottetown Area–has been transformed in recent years,” said Kathy Hambly, executive director of the Greater Charlottetown Area Chamber of Commerce, and a life-long resident of P.E.I.

“Prior to the recent wave of immigration, we were a pretty homogeneous society. . . . We’ve become pretty multicultural, and it’s wonderful.”

In the past five years alone, 7,967 immigrants arrived in P.E.I., accounting for the bulk of the more than 9,050 newcomers who came to the province since 2000, according to the Prince Edward Island Statistics Bureau. Ms. Hambly said the great majority would have at least initially settled in Charlottetown, which in 2006 had a population of just 32,000.

During the first three quarters of this year, 2,163 newcomers arrived in P.E.I. From the grocery-store shelves stacked with specialty foods for the growing Chinese and Korean populations, to the recently opened European patisserie run by immigrants from Turkey, to the languages heard in the halls of Colonel Gray Senior High School, “every street you walk down in Charlottetown offers a different ethnic experience,” Ms. Hambly said.

The vast majority of newcomers to P.E.I. hail from China and Korea, though there is also a sizable Middle Eastern and refugee population that heralds from Bhutan, Somalia and Burundi.

Although the province welcomed its first non-European premier in 1986, when Islanders elected Joe Ghiz–whose roots extend to Lebanon, and whose son, Robert, is the current premier–the eastern province was long known for its homogeneity and “Island way of life.”

“While a sense of rootedness can be of great value, it should not render our sense of identity so inflexible that we close the doors of our minds to what we are today and what we can be in the future,” reads a 1999 report commissioned by the government, which went on to lament “a strong cultural norm of ‘sameness'” in the province.

A decade later, the Island has seen such a rise in immigration–jump-started by the Provincial Nominee Program, which ran from 2001 to 2008 and allowed people interested in coming to Canada to put up money for a new or existing Island business–that the province’s largest newcomer association has made major moves to assist with resettlement.

Earlier this month, the P.E.I. Association for Newcomers to Canada launched what its executive director called “the most comprehensive newcomers guide in the country”–at several hundred pages, the guide even decodes Canadian money, noting that 10 cents is called a ‘dime’ and so on. It does so in English, French, Chinese, Mandarin, Korean, Arabic, and Spanish.

The association also translated the Driver’s Handbook into Arabic and Chinese, and last year partnered with the Department of Environment, Energy and Forestry to host a symposium on fishing regulations for more than 100 Chinese newcomers who were unfamiliar with Canada’s rules.

Still other Islanders have noticed the influx: The P.E.I. Council of the Arts launched an exhibit in March called Here. Now. The Art of Newcomers to P.E.I., which featured artworks such as A Japanese View of P.E.I., and Ms. Hambly said Charlottetown’s Study Abroad Canada recently saw “huge growth” in its English-training services.

“In Charlottetown, we’ve seen a huge change in the community,” said Craig Mackie, executive director of the newcomers association, adding that the association has already gleaned 1,800 new members this year, as compared to 1,218 in 2009. “In a city of 35,000 or so, if you add a couple thousand people from around the world, it’s bound to change the face of the community.”

Mr. Mackie said that although the Island has traditionally struggled to retain international migrants–newcomers have tended to view the tiny province as a pit-stop en route to metropolitan cities such as Toronto and Vancouver–the past couple of years mark what he cautiously deemed a “trend” in the other direction.

“Five or six years ago, there wasn’t the critical mass to retain newcomers,” Mr. Mackie said. “Now, with larger numbers, there is the population to create a sense of community, and so people are deciding to stay. I have even heard recently a couple stories of families leaving P.E.I. for cities like Toronto, only to return to Charlottetown. They missed the smaller city, where they felt safe and knew their children’s teachers.”

What does this mean for a province that, just a decade ago, was surpassed only by Nunavut and Newfoundland and Labrador for its low proportion of foreign-born people?

“It’s a huge opportunity,” said Ms. Hambly, pointing to the province’s aging population and shortage of skilled labourers. “People are excited about this. Yes, we can be a little slow to change here on the Island–just look at canned pop or Sunday shopping–but in this case, people really see the tremendous advantages of meeting people from all over the world.”