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Desperate for workers, West seeks immigration powers

B.C. Premier Christy Clark is leading an effort by Western premiers to take over immigration in a bid to manage its growing skills shortage.

Chad Hipolito/The Globe and Mail/Chad Hipolito/The Globe and Mail

Canada's Western premiers are seeking to wrest control over immigration away from Ottawa to help the West manage its growing skills shortage.

"We are well-positioned but we need to have a national discussion about what further tools provinces need to grow the national economy," said B.C. Premier Christy Clark, who is leading the group, in an interview.

"The biggest one for us in the West is immigration. It's one of the most important economic levers any government has and we don't have it. ... We need to devolve immigration to provincial governments."

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Ms. Clark has the backing of Alberta Premier Alison Redford and Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, who are facing similar labour and skills shortages. They are eyeing Quebec's immigration authority with envy.

As Ottawa struggles with a huge backlog of immigration applications, the provinces, especially in the fast-growing West, are increasingly frustrated with their inability to bring in needed workers.

Ms. Clark was in Ottawa last week but did not formally raise the immigration issue, waiting instead for a task-force report she commissioned to help build B.C.'s case.

In her current jobs plan, Ms. Clark expects B.C.'s economy to grow by one million jobs over the next decade, and a third of those jobs will need to be filled by immigrants.

Under the Provincial Nominee Program, which allows provinces to put forward candidates who want to invest and run a business for accelerated immigration, B.C. can bring in 3,500 skilled workers or entrepreneurs. B.C. wants that figure to rise to 5,000 this year and 6,500 a year after that.

"We wish there were no caps, but if there are caps we'd like them to be higher than they are," said Liberal MLA John Yap, who led the task force. "Ultimately it would be nice to have what Quebec has. Failing that, we would like to have discussions with the federal government to let us have a greater share of the immigration process, in the context of the growth we are forecasting," he said.

Mr. Yap's report is due on the Premier's desk by the end of the month. He has already travelled the province holding a series of forums to assess how to increase the number of skilled immigrants and investors in British Columbia.

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Mr. Yap said he heard from businesses big and small that are frustrated about the lack of skilled workers now – and the challenge is expected to grow as B.C.'s aging population fails to produce enough skilled workers to maintain even the status quo.

"A small business owner in Prince George said he cannot bring in welders fast enough," Mr. Yap recalled from his road show. In Fort St. John, representatives from the oil and gas industry sounded "desperate" for workers. In Cranbrook, he heard the same message from a mining company that says it needs 1,000 skilled workers to develop projects.

"The long term trend is clear," Mr. Yap said. "Over the next 10 years we have so many people leaving the workforce and not enough people here to fill those positions. We need to fill the gap with immigration."

Saskatchewan's premier is also looking to persuade Ottawa to relinquish some of its control over immigration in order to source workers for both skilled and general labour shortages facing his province.

"As strong as I think the component parts feel they are able to respond to their own unique economic challenges, the devolution of that kind of influence especially in terms of immigration policy is pretty key," Mr. Wall said.

"One of barriers to continued growth is the human resources. We have skilled labour shortage. We have a general labour shortage," he said in an interview.

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In Alberta, Ms. Redford is also anxious to see Ottawa hand over some power to the provinces with respect to immigration.

"I think we agree very much on that," she said of her provincial counterparts in the West. "In Alberta, labour issues are paramount for us just to counter inflationary cycles and I think we are very much on the same page with respect to that in order to continue to allow the economy to grow, not just for our own benefit, but for Canada's benefit, we need to see some more flexibility on that."

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About the Authors
B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

Dawn Walton

Dawn Walton has been based in Calgary for The Globe and Mail since 2000. Before leaving Toronto to head West, she won a National Newspaper Award and was twice nominated for the Michener Award for her work with the Report on Business. More

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