Image overhaul needed to attract immigrants

By KRYSTLE CHOW
Published in the News section of Centretown News.
Nov. 11, 2005

The city of Ottawa could become a major hub for new immigrants as a result of the federal government’s plans to foster economic growth through immigration, but only if it markets itself more intensively as a centre of opportunity.

The federal government is said to be hoping for an influx of immigrants to compensate for an aging workforce, improve the economy and help shoulder the tax burden of building the country’s infrastructure.

However, one of the big challenges is to draw immigrants away from the so-called “MTV” —Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver — says Paul Dewar, the NDP candidate for Ottawa Centre.

Dewar, who is on the board of the Ottawa Community Immigrant Services Organization, says most new immigrants focus on these three big cities as their first point of entry into the country because there is a lack of information on the resources available in smaller cities like Ottawa.

As a result, newcomers choose to go to Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver with the expectation of better job opportunities.

These opportunities may not exist, though.

“New Canadians do less well in MTV,” he says, explaining that newcomers often face steep competition for jobs in the larger cities.

The difficulty is not just for immigrants; it’s also hard for the “big three” to accommodate the federal government’s new plans, which would place additional demands on their limited resources.

Enter Ottawa: a place with both the facilities of a big city and the capacity of a much smaller city to absorb newcomers.

“Ottawa has a large ethnoculture, with the various social, religious and cultural sectors, as well as the diplomatic community,” says Fred Awada, director of the Lebanese and Arab Social Services Agency of Ottawa-Carleton.

Dewar agrees Ottawa is very attractive because of the many services it offers immigrants, as it is the fourth largest city in Canada.

“It could be a beacon for people to look to,” he adds.

Awada says there are no major challenges for the city in absorbing immigrants for the most part. Ottawa is usually a stepping stone towards settling in one of the bigger cities or where immigrants move to after spending time elsewhere in the country.

He stresses, however, that the ability of the city to accommodate immigrants depends on making newcomers feel welcome and easing their transition into Canadian society.

Immigrants are four times more likely to be unemployed or underemployed than their Canadian counterparts, says Jack DeJong who is a project co-ordinator for the Ottawa Community Economic Development Network.

There are a number of reasons for this: the difficulty in recognizing foreign credentials of professionals such as doctors and engineers, the vast differences between the business environment of Canada and their home countries, and language barriers.

“Most newcomers may have owned businesses in their home countries, but the Canadian context is quite different,” DeJong says, speaking specifically about new Canadians who hope to start businesses.

New immigrants may also find it difficult to secure loans with no credit rating, and may not know what resources and services are available to help them, he adds.

As a result, they may take underpaid jobs just to support their families.

Some may even return to their home countries to find a job there, and may simply send money over to those family members who are still in Canada, Dewar says.

This is bad for both immigrants and Canadians, he says, as immigrants can bring in many resources and enhance the local culture.

Dewar stresses the importance of new Canadians in creating jobs for newcomers and locals alike, as well as in bringing in much-needed skills and capital to invest in existing businesses.

He adds there is a need to create a vibrant, diverse economy with a large number of ethnic and internationally-themed businesses.

“On the weekend, where do you want to go? Somewhere diverse like Somerset Street, or Kanata?” he says, citing Centretown as an example of a diverse neighbourhood with a thriving economy.

Dewar says the next step, therefore, is to establish programs to attract new immigrants to Ottawa and to support them in the settlement and integration process.

“It’s a joint responsibility of all three levels of government (to promote Ottawa abroad),” he says. “But the federal government should play the lead role in marketing the city internationally.”

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