Niagara’s population growth has, for a long time, remained behind that in Ontario, Canada, and in comparable municipalities. Actual growth has fallen short of most, if not all, of the projections made in the last fifty years, and Niagara has already fallen behind forecasts in the first few years of the current 25-year Ontario projections. Population growth is a key component to economic success. An increasing population produces an accelerator effect for an economy as new residents purchase goods and services, thus driving job creation and economic growth. A stagnant or declining population has the reverse effect.
Further, with a population older than that of Ontario or Canada, and getting older, Niagara must broaden the base of working-age people if the number of retirees and their greater demands for services such as healthcare are not to become an overwhelming burden on the tax base. Niagara’s population growth is also not spread evenly across all municipalities. Some are growing relatively strongly while others are stagnant. Failing to address these imbalances will accelerate economic gaps between municipalities. Niagara must set out to grow its population, but not blindly, and must produce and enact a plan to attract skilled workers and immigrants, to retain talented young people in the region, and to develop the skills and the employability of the population.
Canada, like any other wealthy nation, has a relatively low birth rate. To grow the population, it is necessary to attract immigrants, and this is also true for regions within Canada. To grow our population, Niagara must bring immigrants to the region from elsewhere in Canada or elsewhere in the world.
Attracting immigrants, particularly skilled immigrant labour, relies on more than merely creating economic opportunity, and if Niagara solely focuses on this, it will become uncompetitive in immigrant attraction. We must identify the immigrants – and the skills – we want to attract to Niagara and not only target them as potential immigrants but encourage and nurture the cultural touchpoints that will support them here. Prudent policy will identify the factors that attract these groups and then market Niagara specifically along those lines.
The following strategies may be helpful for the next municipal governments in Niagara:
- Sign on to the Canadian Coalition of Municipalities Against Racism and Discrimination (CCMARD).
- Develop programs that will encourage and assist underrepresented candidates from diverse backgrounds in election to municipal offices.
- Hire Diversity and Inclusion Officers at the municipal level to conduct research into inclusivity options for municipalities and implement them.
- Partner with existing immigrant-serving organizations and work to integrate services.
- Tap into existing immigrant communities and individuals for knowledge on how to attract more immigrants to Niagara.
What makes a region attractive to investment and business growth is, in large part, the presence of a skilled workforce. Amazon’s HQ2 RFP, for example, cites “locations with the potential to attract and retain strong technical talent” as a major factor in its decision. Niagara’s immigrant attraction strategy, as noted above, should focus on attracting post-secondary educated immigrants and those with certifications in the skilled trades.
Moreover, Niagara should also focus on training local youth in the skills which are and will be in demand with employers and aim to serve in a facilitating role between Niagara’s post-secondary institutions and local employers through economic development. Niagara’s post-secondary institutions should be considered a vital part of economic development. The linkages between these institutions, economic development, and local employers should be preserved, and opportunities to forge new ones sought out.