Halifax mayor says municipalities need more control over immigration policy

HALIFAX—Mayor Mike Savage says the municipality needs more control over policy to ensure immigrants come to Halifax and stay in Halifax.

Savage highlighted his position on the matter at the National Metropolis Conference hosted at the Halifax Convention Centre on Thursday, involving talks on national immigration trends, policies and other issues.

“The bottom line: We want more newcomers to make Halifax home,” he told a large crowd of academics, policy-makers and front line workers from the field of immigration settlement.

But as Savage put it, he and other municipal leaders often feel like “the kids at the table” when it comes to making policy decisions that affect the attraction and retention of immigrants.

One example: In 2014, Halifax council voted in favour of a motion from Savage to allow permanent residents to vote in elections. It hasn’t happened because the province hasn’t granted permission.

That’s despite the fact that the practical benefits and challenges of immigration are felt potently at the local level.

“People from other parts of the world are key to our success and our future,” Savage said, pointing to the potential for stabilizing the population and growing the economy.

The power of the municipality to manage that intake is limited, as the formal responsibility for opening borders and providing services to immigrants is shared by Ottawa and the provinces.

In 2013, Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) started a Local Immigration Partnership to encourage collaboration between local settlement organizations. The HRM website notes that such partnerships are common in Canadian cities, numbering about 60.

Roberto Montiel, the co-ordinator of the Halifax Immigration Partnership (HIP), told the Star that the program has changed significantly since it started six years ago. Montiel is the only full-time employee on the team.

“At the beginning, (significant) immigration was more of an aspiration for Halifax. Right now, it is a reality,” he said.

Montiel — who started with HIP in 2015 — said the program’s original goal of connecting immigration settlement services has been achieved. Now he’s creating new goals, including increasing civic engagement of immigrants.

The mayor had that in mind, too, with his motion to allow permanent residents to vote.

“It is a ridiculous anachronism of the past that we still have a lot of governance rules that hold cities back from doing things,” Savage said.

“The feds have the money, the provinces have the jurisdiction, but the cities have the problem.”

Savage said he coined that aphorism for housing issues but found it fitting for immigration, too.

For Jennifer Watts, the CEO of the Halifax-based Immigration Services Association of Nova Scotia (ISANS), the “problem” in HRM is a moving target.

“(The challenge) might have actually been retention, of keeping people here. But we’re seeing that that’s changing,” she said in an interview.

According to the Nova Scotia Office of Immigration, the province has the highest retention rate in Atlantic Canada, at about 71 per cent. Still, that hasn’t changed since 2005 and it remains below the national average of 86 per cent.

Municipalities, according to Watts, have a huge role to play in retaining and integrating immigrants.

“The municipal governments and local governments play such a tactile role in terms of the relationship with citizens,” she said.

“When we have cities engaged and looking at immigration and really trying to work on how to settle people, it just has such a greater impact … whether for refugees or immigrants when they come to this country.”

There’s a paucity of data to indicate how cities are doing in their efforts to affect the state of immigration within their limits — something Montiel would like to see change.

“We need to measure who’s staying here and whether we’re retaining people for the right reasons and also whether people are staying here longer than five years,” he said, noting that five years is the federal statistical standard for measuring immigrant retention.

“So that immigration can really contribute to a thriving city, it needs to be much more than five years. You need to have families settling here, people staying here for the long haul and really being committed to growing this city, to making this city vibrant and feeling that they have ownership.”

Montiel said HIP doesn’t have the capacity to look more closely at retention, nor does he think it’s the necessarily the right focus for the program.

The conference continues until Saturday.

Taryn Grant is a Halifax-based reporter focusing on education. Follow her on Twitter: @tarynalgrant

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