As waves of immigrants remade Canada a decade ago, the famously friendly people of Manitoba could not contain their pique.
WINNIPEG, Manitoba — As waves of immigrants remade Canada a decade ago, the famously friendly people of Manitoba could not contain their pique.
The object of their ire? It was the newcomers’ preference for “MTV” — Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver — over the humble prairie province north of North Dakota that coveted workers and population growth.
Demanding “our fair share,” Manitobans did something hard to imagine in U.S. politics, where concern over illegal immigrants dominates public debate and states seek more power to keep them out. In Canada, which has little illegal immigration, Manitoba won new power to bring foreigners in, handpicking ethnic and occupational groups judged most likely to stay.
This experiment in designer immigration has made Winnipeg a hub of parka-clad diversity — a blue-collar town that gripes about the cold in Punjabi and Tagalog — and defied the anti-immigrant backlash seen in much of the world.
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Rancorous debates over immigration have erupted from Australia to Sweden, but there is no such thing in Canada as an anti-immigrant politician. Few nations take more immigrants per capita or with less fuss.
Is it the selectivity Canada shows? The services it provides? Even the Mad Cowz, a violent youth gang of African refugees, did nothing to curb appetites for foreign workers.
“When I took this portfolio, I expected some of the backlash that’s occurred in other parts of the world,” said Jennifer Howard, Manitoba’s minister of immigration. “But I have yet to have people come up to me and say, ‘I want fewer immigrants.’ I hear, ‘How can we bring in more?’ “
“Love all the way”
Winnipeg, once a steak-and-potatoes town, now offers stocks of palm oil and pounded yams, four Filipino newspapers, a large Hindu Diwali festival and a mandatory course on Canadian life from the grand to the granular. About 600 newcomers a month learn that the Canadian charter ensures “the right to life, liberty and security” and employers like cover letters in New Times Roman font.
“From the moment we touched down at the airport, it was love all the way,” said Olesegun Daodu, 34, who recently arrived from Nigeria to join relatives and marveled at the medical card that offers free care. “If we have any reason to go the hospital now, we just walk in.”
“The license plates say ‘Friendly Manitoba,’ ” said his wife, Hannah.
“It’s true — really, really true,” Daodu said. “I had to ask my aunt, ‘Do they ever get angry here?’ “
Canada long has sought immigrants to populate the world’s second-largest land mass, but two developments in the 1960s shaped the modern age. One created a point system that favors the highly skilled. The other abolished provisions that screened out nonwhites. Millions of minorities followed, with Chinese, Indians and Filipinos in the lead.
Relative to its population, Canada takes more than twice as many legal immigrants as the United States. Why no hullabaloo?
With one-ninth of the U.S. population, Canadians are keener for growth, and the point system helps persuade the public it is getting the newcomers it needs. The children of immigrants typically do well. The economic downturn has been mild. Plus the absence of large-scale illegal immigration removes a dominant source of the U.S. conflict.
“The big difference between Canada and the U.S. is that we don’t border Mexico,” said Naomi Alboim, a former immigration official who teaches at Queens University in Ontario.
French and English from the start, Canada also has a more obliging political culture — one that accepts more pluribus and demands less unum. That American complaint — “Why do I have to press 1 for English?” — baffles a country with a minister of multiculturalism.
Another force is in play: immigrant voting strength. About 20 percent of Canadians are foreign born (compared with 12.5 percent in the United States), and they are quicker to acquire citizenship and voting rights.
Some stirrings of discontent can be found. The rapid growth of the “MTV” cities has fueled complaints about congestion and housing costs. A foiled 2006 terrorist plot brought modest concern about radical Islam. And critics of the refugee system say it rewards false claims of persecution, leaving the country with an unlocked back door.
“There’s considerably more concern among our people than is reflected in our policies,” said Martin Collacott, who helped create the Center for Immigration Policy Reform, a new group that advocates less immigration.
Collacott said high levels of immigration have increased safety-net costs, slowed economic growth and strained civic cohesion, but he agrees the issue has little force in politics.
“There’s literally no one in parliament willing to take up the cudgel,” he said.
The Manitoba program, started in 1998 at employers’ behest, has grown rapidly under liberal and conservative governments. While the federal system favors those with college degrees, Manitoba takes the semiskilled, such as truck drivers and welders, and focuses on those with local relatives in the hopes they will stay. The newcomers can bring spouses and children and get a path to citizenship.
Most are required to bring savings, typically about $10,000, to finance the transition without government aid. While the province nominates people it wants, the federal government does background checks and has the final say.
Lure of services
While many migrant streams attract the desperately poor, the new Manitobans have backgrounds that are strikingly middle class.
“Back home was good — not bad,” said Nishkam Virdi, 32, who makes $17 an hour at the Palliser furniture plant after moving from India, where his family owned a machine shop.
He said he was drawn less by the wage than the lure of health care and solid utilities.
“The living standard is higher — the lighting, the water, the energy,” he said.
The program has drawn about 50,000 people in the past 10 years, and surveys show the majority stayed. Howard, the immigration minister, credits job-placement and language programs, but many migrants credit the informal welcomes.
“Because we are from the Third World, I thought they might think they are superior,” said Anne Simpao, a Filipino nurse in tiny St. Claude, who was approached by a stranger and offered dishes and a television set. “They call it friendly Manitoba, and it’s really true.”
One complaint is the difficulty many immigrants have in transferring professional credentials. Heredina Maranan, 45, a certified public accountant in Manila, has been stuck in a Manitoba factory job for a decade. She did not disguise her disappointment when relatives sought to follow her.
“I did not encourage them,” she said. “I think I deserved better.”
Arthur DeFehr, chief executive officer of Palliser furniture, sees the Manitoba program as a lesson for the United States: Choose migrants who fill local needs and give them a legal path.
With at least 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States, he sees another opportunity for Manitoba.
“I’m sure many of those people would make perfectly wonderful citizens of Canada,” he said. “I think we should go and get them.”