It began in 2003 with the Hamm government’s rightful recognition of our ticking demographic time bomb. In order to defuse it, Nova Scotia desperately needed to attract more immigrants who would root themselves, their businesses and their families here.
But the fast-track solution spawned by those best of self-interested intentions quickly got tangled in our politics as all-too-usual. Untendered, closed-door contracts. The greed of too many in the business community who saw the newcomers as cash cows to be milked instead of potential colleagues to be welcomed and mentored. And then, of course, the government itself refused to be transparent or accountable about what it was really up to until the mess of its own making was beyond fixing.
Only about 300 of the program’s 800 newcomers stayed, and many have nothing good to say about their $130,000-welcome-to-Nova-Scotia experience.
Friday’s tentative settlement of a class action lawsuit by the last 336 unsatisfied economic-stream immigrants puts a final, welcome coffin nail in a botched program the province shuttered in 2006.
But it doesn’t change our desperate need for more immigrants. Thanks to Nova Scotia’s declining birth rate, aging population, out-goers and lack of in-comers, our current half-million-strong labour force is expected, according to one study, to shrivel by 150,000 able bodies—30 per cent—in the next 25 years. By 2015, Nova Scotia will have reached the point at which “the availability of labour hits zero.”
Immigration alone can’t solve that elephant-in-the-room problem. But it will play an important role in any solution.
Which is why the current government’s "Welcome Home to Nova Scotia" immigration strategy is welcome. Aiming to double our number of new immigrants to 7,200 each year by 2020, it focuses—finally—on identifying and targeting compatible newcomers instead of counting the quick bucks we can take from anyone with bucks to spare, then matching their skills with our community needs.
Nova Scotia’s average farmer, for example, is 58 years old. Can we attract immigrant farmer-entrepreneurs to take over and expand the province's agricultural sector? What about temporary workers and international students who’ve already experienced Nova Scotia’s charms? Can we make it easier for them to stay? How about more easily confirming the credentials of those trained abroad? And welcoming family members of those already here?
Let’s hope we’ve got our priorities straight this time. We probably won’t get another chance to make a good first impression.
Copyright 2011 Stephen Kimber
Bolivar-Getson’s not the only one to blame
To say that Carolyn Bolivar-Getson was a disaster as Nova Scotia’s immigration minister is to state the obvious. After all, this is the woman who, as recently as last week, was defending her government’s indefensible, reprehensible immigrant rip-off program by arguing that those who signed up for the government-sanctioned, $130,000 “economic mentorship” program “did not have to come here under that program. They chose to do that and put their money up front.” Caveat emptor. Tough luck, fella.
The government had already quietly decided to refund close to $60 million — without offering to pay any interest on money it’s held for a year or more — to about 600 would-be immigrants whose money we took but who never got what they paid for. But Bolivar-Getson continued to insist that those individuals who’d had the too-usual misfortune to be mismatched with a mentor (like Iranian plastic surgeon Ali Shirazi whose placement was with a car dealer) or ended up not getting a job or opportunity in their chosen field weren’t eligible to get even some of their money back.
And, oh yes, despite the sickly stench of scandal wafting out from its rotting corpse, Bolivar-Getson blithely told reporters she saw absolutely no need for a review to find out what had gone so wrong.
She had to go.
But while Bolivar-Getson has to carry the can for what happened after last year’s ultimate collapse of the disastrously flawed and failed economic nominee program, she isn’t responsible for creating the mess in the first place.
Then-Premier John Hamm and his first Immigration Minister, our now-Premier Rodney MacDonald, must wear that one.
In December 2002, the province signed an un-tendered five-year contract with Halifax-based Cornwallis Financial to serve as the province’s “designated worldwide marketing co-ordinator” for its much touted economic nominee program.
Under the program’s terms, a wannabe economic immigrant had to pony up more than $130,000 to even get through the door. Close to $30,000 of that went to Cornwallis. More than a dozen other, initially unnamed but “approved” Nova Scotia companies not only got to skim $80,000 off the top of what was left but they also got six months’ free labour from mainly highly skilled, already economically successful would-be immigrants. We now know that at least some of those companies had connections to Cornwallis.
In the winter of 2005, Daily News legislature reporter Brian Flinn was the first to raise questions about the huge fees the program was charging. He pointed out that Cornwallis and its president were major donor to the Progressive Conservatives. That led the party’s chief fundraiser and apologist, Stewart McInnes, to lash out, accusing the paper of scaring off potential corporate political donors by making it seem — horror of horrors — that there might be a connection between such untendered, sweetheart contracts and a firm’s largesse to the party in power.
Could there be? Was there?
That’s still a good question and one that’s never been satisfactorily answered by Cornwallis or the government, which are now locked in a lawsuit over the province’s decision last year to finally bail on the failed program.
In fact, there is much we still do not know about how the nominee program — created in response to the very real need for Nova Scotia to attract more immigrants — came to be, or why Cornwallis got the contract without tender, or why there seems to have been so little government oversight on how the company went about matching immigrants with corporate mentors or what those immigrants got for their money.
We have a right to know what really happened, and why. And who was responsible. As do the would-be immigrants, whose perception of Nova Scotia must have been soured by their experiences.
Getting that information out, of course, wasn’t the purpose of Tuesday’s cabinet soft-shoe shuffle in which Premier MacDonald replaced Bolivar-Getson with Len “It’s-very-difficult-for-me-to-answer-any-specific-questions” Goucher.
The premier’s real goal — in advance of a legislature session in which the festering immigration scandal figures to be a hot topic — is to make it more difficult for the opposition, and for us, to get answers to those questions.
Which makes getting answers even more important.
Stephen Kimber is the Rogers Communications Chair in Journalism at the University of King's College. His column, Kimber's Nova Scotia, appears in The Sunday Daily News.
Copyright 2007 Stephen Kimber