Demont: Halifax at forefront of national refugee effort

John Demont, Chronicle Herald – Opinions, 4 October 2015. 

There are a few reasons to be heartened by the news that Mayor Mike Savage of Halifax will be co-chairman of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities task force on Syrian refugee resettlement.

First, of course, it is just good to know that the nation’s cities are pushing forward with a unified strategy to resettle the scores of unfortunates fleeing the tragedy unfolding in the Middle East.

The mayor and city’s willingness to take a leadership role in the initiative is also emblematic of how the whole of Nova Scotia has responded to the crisis — as a refreshing new attitude toward newcomers to this province.

“There does seem to be a newfound commitment to immigration,” said Gerry Mills, director of operations for the Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia.

Evidence of this seems to be everywhere: the big recent ask by provincial Justice Minister Diana Whalen for Ottawa to open the door to Canada and send Syrian refugees to this province.

But also the announcement last week of two new business immigration streams that it is hoped will create jobs and help rebalance the province’s aging demographic.

Then there are the dozens of hastily formed groups — originating in churches and neighbourhoods and sometimes just among circles of friends — that have raised the $28,000 necessary to sponsor a Syrian refugee family in Nova Scotia.

The association alone knows of 40 to 45 such groups. And that doesn’t even include folks that, in smaller ways, are trying to improve the lot of immigrants when they arrive.

A case in point: a program to match newcomers and established Nova Scotian families for Thanksgiving dinner. The effort is the brainchild of Engage Nova Scotia, the volunteer group formed to bring some of the recommendations of the oneNS Commission into being.

So far this year, 112 guest families and 71 host families have signed up — already more than for last year’s event, when most of the participants jumped on in the last week or so before Oct. 12.

What’s behind the change of heart in a region that has traditionally lagged most of the country in attracting and holding onto immigrants?

A bunch of things, said Savage, who calls the phenomenon “a willingness to look beyond the purely humanitarian to see how immigration can help the province socially and economically.”

The oneNS Commission’s 2014 report about province’s future hit the nail on the head for a lot of people when it warned that we face a demographic squeeze: on the one hand, an aging population with obsolete skills; on the other, a steady exodus of younger Nova Scotians.

The worst-performing economy in the past 20 years could see economic activity drop lower again farther down the road unless something happens soon.

Which, according to the Ray Ivany-led commission, is where immigrants could come in.

The Ivany report urged several targets — among other things, 7,000 new immigrants a year and retaining at least 10 per cent of foreign university students after graduation — to counteract our gradual decline.

Immigrants, studies show, are more likely to create jobs than take them away from people who are already here, as was once argued in some circles.

We’ve got a ways to go, even if in 2014, Nova Scotia took in the most immigrants it has in the last decade (2,670).

According to Statistics Canada, we’re also doing a better job to holding onto the newcomers once they arrive; 71 per cent of those who came between 2007 and 2011 are still living here.

We’re still nowhere near where we need to be. Mills, whose organization helps ease the transition for newcomers, said Halifax in 2015 can seem a lot more worldly than it did a few decades back, but that’s mostly due to the huge increase in international students at local universities.

In recent years, she said, we have only welcomed around 200 refugees a year, most of them children.

That’s why Mills is heartened by the reaction to the Syrian situation.

“The Vietnam crisis was the last time we saw something like this.”

In a recent interview, Whalen pointed to another historical precedent: 1999, when Nova Scotia welcomed 2,500 Kosovars fleeing their own war-torn country.

Savage goes back even further in recalling another moment when Nova Scotian generosity toward refugees was on display: 1987, when a ship carrying 174 Sikhs from the Punjab, fleeing persecution in their homeland, landed on this shore.

His dad, John Savage, then the mayor of Dartmouth, was front and centre in welcoming the newcomers.

“It wasn’t necessarily a universal view,” Mike Savage recalls.

Today, one gets the feeling it would be a different story.