Thousands of immgrants flock to Saskatoon

By Jonathan Charlton, The Star Phoenix May 9, 2013 - There are more immigrants living in Saskatoon than aboriginals, according to the 2011 National Household Survey, which paints a picture of the city as an increasingly popular destination for newcomers to Canada.

Between 2006 and 2011, the number of aboriginals inched up to 23,895 from 21,535.

Over the same period, 11,470 immigrants came to the Saskatoon census metropolitan area, which includes communities around the city, bringing the total to 27,355.

That means more than half of Saskatoon's current immigrants - many of whom are from Southeast Asia - arrived in a 10-year period and now make up 10.7 per cent of the city's population.

This shift could create tensions between newcomers and the aboriginal community, according to Ken Coates, the Canada research chair in regional innovation at the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy.

These immigrants bring a new perspective to longstanding issues around First Nations, Coates said.

"They don't share the collective guilt of Euro-Canadians. They don't have a historical background that says, 'We have an ongoing obligation to the indigenous population.' They come from countries that are war-torn, with severe problems with poverty or political challenges; they are not necessarily well-disposed towards aboriginal rights."

Coates has heard concerns from aboriginal leaders about whether public sympathy on issues important to them will remain as demographics change.

"You can look at lots of ridings in the Toronto area, for example, that are dominated by new Canadians. I'm not suggesting for a second they're racist or aggressively anti-aboriginal, they just don't buy into the public policy agenda that says dealing with these historic grievances is in fact an obligation of the current population."

The two groups are also competing for jobs, as foreign workers enter the province to fill parts of the workforce struggling to attract the existing population, Coates said.

"You'll also notice among First Nations people that's an area of concern. They're saying if you have these temporary worker programs, you're basically taking entry-level jobs from First Nations people who need to get into the workforce. So that's a potential source of tension and concern.

"A lot of times, what happens with Metis and particularly First Nations people is that they don't apply for jobs because they don't think they have the skill set necessary to do it, when in fact, with a relatively short training process they could actually handle it."

But there is also a sign that Saskatoon will integrate its newcomers with flying colours. Coates noted that at this point there are no ethnic enclaves in the city.

"And if it doesn't happen, that by itself would be really interesting because it would suggest that in fact we're a small enough city that you can live anywhere and get around to your friends ... it could also be the sign of a welcoming city, you don't feel the need to gather with your immediate national compatriots because you feel welcome in the society as a whole."

The real issue is that "it becomes incumbent upon the government of Saskatchewan and First Nations and Metis communities to make specific efforts to reach out to new Canadians early on," he said.

Alan Wallace, Saskatoon's manager of planning and development, said the city wants "to engage these people more in our civic affairs, in terms of having them come out to community meetings, attend council meetings."

The city has also made a priority of creating affordable housing.

"Nobody can stay here if they can't find housing here," Wallace said.

In the past five years, 2,534 affordable housing units have been created in the city, meeting its target of an average of 500 units per year.

This was done through speeding up applications for development permits as well as financial incentives, such as the mortgage flexibility support program, which offers a five per cent down payment to home buyers within a maximum income limit. This is then paid back in property taxes.

"Basically it's a self-financing program. But it gives them access to housing right off the bat," Wallace said.

Saskatoon should be able to keep up that pace, he said.

"We think the target is still valid, but it keeps moving on us. You never solve the problem entirely as long as you have people moving into the community."

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