Lessons from Winkler

How a small Manitoba city was able to open the immigration floodgates and find the talent it needs to thrive

Winkler, Man., doesn’t look different than many small prairie towns to a casual observer. The community, 120 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg, is home to about 9,000 residents and is the economic hub of the southern, rural part of the province that straddles the American border.

One of the largest employers in town is a recreational vehicle manufacturer. And the city, the eighth largest in the province, has a strong Mennonite community. Many of the residents are German descendants.

But start talking to those residents, and it doesn’t take long to figure out what’s different about the city — many of them haven’t lived there very long. In fact, they haven’t even been in Canada very long. Between 1999 and 2004, 1,832 immigrants chose to settle in a rural part of Manitoba that most Canadians likely couldn’t find on a map.

And while that number is “exceptionally high,” the town’s explosive growth is no accident, said Ray Silvius, part of the Rural Development Institute at Brandon University and a PhD student at Carleton University in Ottawa.

A group effort

In the 1990s, Winkler was experiencing an economic boom and a shortage of workers. Hundreds of jobs were going unfilled and an opportunity to grow the city was being lost.

The community got together to come up with a plan to tackle the shortage — employers, the chamber of commerce, the city and the economic development corporation teamed up with the province to attract immigrants.

Silvius said the province’s involvement through the Provincial Nomination Program was critical to the success in Winkler. Through that program, provinces can nominate potential immigrants and these are often people who might not qualify under the federal government’s criteria. Winkler was able to focus its efforts on attracting people who were likely to thrive in a more rural setting.

Because German is a common language in town, Winkler concentrated on getting people who spoke German to settle in the city. It sent delegations to Europe. Family members contacted relatives and boasted about the benefits of coming to Winkler, the jobs that were available and the vast amounts of open land available for purchase. And it worked.

“Some of the initial ties that community members had with others overseas really facilitated the arrivals in the first place,” said Silvius. “So, without having that, it’s suspect whether such a large takeoff would have happened in the initial stages.”

The ability of the community to work together, get the province involved and go outside the narrow parameters of the federal immigration criteria set the stage for the city’s success, he said.

“There was definitely an initial push from employers,” said Silvius. “But I think one of the reasons why Winkler is so successful is they had a great degree of co-operation from city, from economic development folks in the area, from private entrepreneurs and from people who simply needed workers.”

Handling the immigration boom

Since the community pushed for the immigration, it was well positioned to handle the population boom. Laurie Sawatzky, program co-ordinator for South Central Employment and Settlement Services (SCESS) in Winkler, a government-funded service that provides free services for immigrants, said providing immigrants with a broad range of help is critical to making them feel welcome and at home.

One thing SCESS did was print a booklet entitled “Welcome to Winkler” in English and German to give to newcomers. SCESS also helps immigrants get Manitoba health cards, provides information about health care and social insurance and offers translation and interpretation services. It connects newcomers to schools and other community services, such as doctors and English classes, and helps them put a resumé together.

“One of the jobs of our settlement employees is to go with people on doctor’s appointments, or visits to the dentist, to do interpretation,” said Sawatzky. “Even to the pharmacy, because all of the medical instructions are in English and if it’s not your first language it’s very difficult to remember what to take or how many. Those are very real issues.”

The strain on services, housing

One of the challenges facing Winkler is housing — it simply doesn’t have enough, Sawatzky said. Immigration has also put pressures on local services, such as schools and hospitals.

But Silvius said while there might be a temporary strain on such services, it’s actually a good thing.

“They might be challenged by the new arrivals, but this also presents a really positive opportunity to grow or to sustain funding, and that’s not always the case in rural communities,” he said. “What I heard during my research is that the numbers that schools or hospitals receive was a challenge, but it was a good challenge to have.”

Since the entire community is so involved, there were really no major surprises when the immigrants started pouring in, he said. Nor did Silvius see any strain on the community in terms of anti-immigrant behaviour.

“Maybe this speaks to the cohesiveness of the community and that there were large segments of the community on board from the beginning that understood why these initiatives were being undertaken,” he said.

The fact the new immigrants were from a similar cultural background may have played a role in that as well, but he said it’s not that simple..

“Any sort of encounter of human beings who aren’t familiar with each other can lead to some form of uneasiness or conflict,” he said. While it’s difficult to say whether 1,800 immigrants from China or the Philippines would have been as successful in Winkler, there are some examples of minorities moving to rural areas successfully.

About 25 years ago there was a large influx of refugees from Laos to Portage la Prairie, Man., he said.

“There are not a whole lot of Laotians in rural Manitoba, and yet many are still in the area,” said Silvius.

And just because a community has a certain cultural background doesn’t automatically mean immigrants from the same background will be able to fit in.

“If a community is, for example, Ukrainian historically but nobody can speak Ukrainian, it may not offer the same type of assistance to allow immigrants to integrate,” he said.

What can employers do?

Employers in rural areas have a critical role to play in helping immigrants integrate into the community, even if they aren’t hiring any of the new arrivals. In Winkler, employers teamed together to provide English training at work and at off-work sites.

And Silvius said employers need to understand what they’re getting themselves into when hiring immigrants.

“I don’t say that in a negative sense, but they should anticipate that there’s the possibility for cultural misunderstandings in the workplace,” he said. “Immigrants, regardless of where they are from, are going to have different expectations in the workplace.”

How the Provincial Nomination Program works

Greg Scott, a spokesperson for Citizenship and Immigration Canada, said the Provincial Nomination Program enables Ottawa to work closely with the provinces and territories to identify immigration needs and to make sure the necessary supports are in place for successful immigrant integration.

“Working in partnership to develop new immigration policies helps create the conditions for immigration levels to rise, should demand warrant it, and helps ensure satisfactory outcomes for immigrants,” said Scott.

An individual who wants to immigrate to a particular province or territory as a provincial nominee first needs to apply to the province. The province then considers the application based on provincial immigration needs and the genuine intention of the applicant to settle there.

Scott said each province has its own requirements for the program. According to Citizenship and Immigration Canada’s website, the following jurisdictions have an agreement with the federal government under the program:

•British Columbia;
•New Brunswick;
•Newfoundland and Labrador;
•Nova Scotia;
•Prince Edward Island;
•Saskatchewan; and

Can the Winkler experience be replicated?

The Winkler experience is unique, but there are some lessons to be learned from it for other rural areas hoping to replicate its success, said Ray Silvius, part of the Rural Development Institute at Brandon University and a PhD student at Carleton University in Ottawa.

The first step for communities is to take stock of what they have to offer, he said. The idea of a flood of talented immigrants rolling into town may sound exciting, but the community has to be prepared. Like in Winkler, all the stakeholders need to get together and develop a plan.

The new opportunities offered by the Provincial Nomination Program gives rural areas a powerful tool to find the right people, but attracting immigrants won’t solve a community’s problems.

“Immigration isn’t a cure-all, it’s not a panacea for economic and demographic problems,” said Silvius. “It can be a strong component of a plan, but it shouldn’t exist in place of such a plan.”

After all, immigrants aren’t that different than born-and-bred Canadians.

“If there’s compelling reasons for people in the community to leave, that might happen for immigrants as well,” he said. “If there’s not a view to integrating and accommodating immigrants, then there’s the possibility of misspending large amounts of time and financial resources in order to attract them. Even having a couple of families arrive takes a lot of effort on the part of multiple members of the community.”

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