Avinash Thakor is all too familiar with the struggles immigrants face when they arrive on Canadian soil.
Thakor was born and raised in Gujarat in northwestern India and immigrated to Canada in 2010. Then 20 years old, he came as a student with a work permit and he eventually landed a job at Subway restaurant in Pincher Creek.
Later on, he expanded his career and business connections. Now he owns the Pincher Creek Subway and Pizza Hut, operating them from afar in Lethbridge. He also owns the Subway in Coaldale.
Not everyone is as lucky, he says, adding that he knows people who weren’t able to secure jobs.
“They went back because they couldn’t find anything,” he says.
The Alberta government is looking to address such problems through several new immigration programs offered under its Alberta Advantage Immigration Program, including the Rural Renewal Stream, which the Town of Pincher Creek is interested in applying for.
The Rural Renewal Stream enables rural communities with less than 100,000 people to attract and retain immigrants by working with local employers and settlement-providing organizations to offer employment and support services including housing, language training, health care, and education.
The stream requires that communities apply for designation through the provincial government. Once granted, a local council or a settlement organization can endorse a potential immigrant by writing a letter of support, which would be included in the immigration application package.
Community designation lasts for three years, but this period can be extended.
The program is tailored for people looking for long-term employment. Refugees, part-time or seasonal workers, and claimants involved in a federal appeal or removal process cannot be nominated.
Roger Reid, MLA for Livingstone-Macleod, says the program will give immigrants a little more security when moving their lives and families to a new place and culture.
“For those who are looking to immigrate, it becomes a way for them to see the opportunity prior to making the move and be prepared for when they get here,” he says.
Workers that come to small towns through programs within the Alberta Advantage Immigration Program, Reid adds, end up becoming valued members of the community.
“I’ll be honest, I really expected a lot of the foreign workers that came in under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, once they got their residency, would move to the cities, and we found that to be not the case,” Reid continues.
“They’ve become an integrated part of the fibre of the community, and it’s fantastic.”
Municipal involvement ensures communities can find workers with skill sets that match local needs, eliminating labour gaps and ensuring that immigrants can find work more easily.
Thakor is interested in the program and says it would help him retain more workers. As he employs mostly youths and young adults, he has a high turnover rate and most of his staff end up leaving to pursue post-secondary education.
“There’s nothing here,” he says. “Pretty much everyone is going to Lethbridge or some other place. It’s hard to retain long-term.”
Suresh Chhabra has been having similar difficulties. He owns Pincher Creek’s Dairy Queen restaurant with his son Anshul and says recruiting immigrants to work for the business would help ease their workload and fill labour shortages.
Dairy Queen opened last year in May. Since then, the Chhabra family has needed to make many sacrifices in order to keep their business running smoothly because of their small pool of workers.
Anshul was supposed to return to college last fall, but put his education on hold in order to dedicate more time to the business. Suresh also had to quit his side job managing Fas Gas in Pincher Creek.
They currently employ about 19 people, but Suresh says he still needs about seven more workers. Most of his staff are students who can only work evenings, he adds, and
he’s often short-handed in the morning.
The town was encouraged to investigate the Rural Renewal Stream when several businesses, including Dairy Queen, requested that administration look into the program.
Marie Everts, Pincher Creek’s economic development officer, says the program intersects with the town’s community economic development strategy that was officially unveiled in January.
“Workforce is one of the pieces that has been highlighted a priority,” she explains. “This is a direct tie that could address some of the challenges our businesses are facing right now.”
As part of its application to receive community designation, the town has received a letter of recommendation from the MD of Pincher Creek. The Village of Cowley will discuss sending a similar letter during its June council meeting.
Since the application requires communities to demonstrate an ability to provide social supports and community resources to newcomers, the town will be partnering with Lethbridge Family Services to help with English classes, connections to relevant ethnic and religious organizations, and housing.
As the community representative, Everts will be able to write letters of endorsements from the town and relevant businesses with needs the individual can help address.
While not guaranteeing an applicant’s approval from the federal government, endorsements can greatly bolster the application and provide an opportunity for newcomers to go where there is economic opportunity and social support.
“Hopefully this gives us another touchpoint to retain new Canadians in our community,” Everts says.
Opening the doors of opportunity for newcomers, adds MLA Reid, is part of Alberta’s legacy.
“Everyone who’s moved to this area saw an opportunity to build a better life for themselves and their family, for their children and their grandchildren — and that’s still very true today,” he says.
“My great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents on both sides of my family all immigrated to southern Alberta because of the opportunity that they saw, and here we are, four or five generations later,” he says. “I continue to want to see that happen.”
Sean Oliver, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Shootin' the Breeze