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Rural Ontario county turns to GTA immigrants to bolster economy

Rural Ontario county turns to GTA immigrants to bolster economy
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Owen Sound — As the bus weaved through single-lane country roads across rural Ontario to the County of Grey, Jacinda Rudolph was bombarded with questions from her eager passengers.

How much does an average detached home cost? What’s the wait time for daycare? Is there public transit? Do you need a car to live in Grey? And most important for the 30 passengers, what jobs are available and do they pay well?

“I’m not a tour guide,” said Rudolph, the county’s outreach co-ordinator. “But if you want to know what country life is like, I can definitely help.”

On a gorgeous balmy winter day, the county government — along with the Newcomer Centre of Peel, a settlement agency — was busing in new immigrants from Brampton, Mississauga and Toronto for a field trip and the region’s annual job fair in Owen Sound, more than two hours’ drive northwest of Toronto.

“Honestly, I never heard of Grey County,” said Huntly Xiao, 32, who came to Canada from China in 2012 as a foreign student and became a permanent resident two years ago, when he graduated with a master’s degree in environmental engineering from Concordia University.

“I have worked at Tim Hortons for the past two years to survive. There are a lot of new graduates, a lot of new immigrants like me here. It’s a very competitive job market. This is a great opportunity for me to explore what is available.”

With Ontario’s — and Canada’s — rural communities struggling to fill labour gaps and reverse population and economic decline, the county’s New to Grey pilot project, funded by the province, is the latest attempt by the communities to attract and retain new residents — both Canadians from outside the region and immigrants — to the farm country. Many due to a lack of social support and professional connections.

This new model to mix and match newcomers with smaller communities and rural employers through partnerships with immigrant settlement agencies, if successful, could be a new way for Canada to spread the benefits of immigration and ease the pressure on big cities in absorbing newcomers, more than three-quarters of whom settle in just seven Canadian cities.

Although none of the bus tour participants had previously heard of Grey County — which is about two-thirds the size of Greater Toronto but with a population of only 94,000 — they have been learning and researching about the community with help from the staff at the Newcomer Centre of Peel.

Leading up to the field trip, many of the newcomers connected with job recruiters at The Agency, an Owen Sound recruitment company, about their resumes, skill sets, previous job experiences, employers’ expectations and the local labour market.

“It is a big decision to move. People can do their own Google search but they want to speak to a real person, an employer, a recruiter from the community,” said Tania Maximenko, a training and development facilitator at the Peel settlement agency.

“Our program offers a platform for employers and job-seekers, who wouldn’t have an opportunity to meet otherwise. That one-on-one communication is powerful. We see this as a new model of partnership.”

The guided bus tour was a first, intended to give new prospective residents a flavour of country living and allow them to build a network with county officials and local employers — a key for any potential relocation and settlement in an unfamiliar territory.

Shehnila Masud, a physician from Pakistan, was wowed by the scenic views of rural Ontario after the bus passed the cookie-cutter subdivisions and big-box stores in Mississauga, Brampton and Orangeville into the expansive fields and sparse farmhouses through Shelbourne, Dundalk and Collingwood, where the group stopped at Blue Mountain for a meeting with a manager to learn about job opportunities at the resort.

“I have lived in cities all my life and heard smaller communities are better interconnected and people are welcoming. I’m not sure how true that is in Canada,” said the 50-year-old mother of four, as she paused to admire the picturesque shoreline along Georgian Bay.

“It’s hard to find out stuff if you don’t know anyone. But this time, they have arranged everything for us. Being able to speak to people from the community is crucial and I can look for myself what it’s like living and working in rural Canada.”

Over the microphone, Rudolph continued to entertain the enthusiastic visitors’ questions, telling them jobs are plenty in the region (4,100 new job postings over the past year) and houses are definitely more affordable (she paid $320,000 for her 5-bedroom house on a two-acre property in Owen Sound).

“You do need a car and a driver’s licence to live and work here,” she said. “The rural community is not as diverse. If you are used to ethnic food, there aren’t that many (options). We do have a Chinese community, a Muslim association and a growing Syrian community. Things are changing.”

As the bus was slowly pulling into the parking lot of the Bayshore Community Centre, the venue for the job fair, Phuntsok Chomphel, a social service worker from Toronto, said he was both excited and nervous.

“I have read about the Grey County on the web that it is a place of serenity. I don’t know how welcoming they are to newcomers, but I have high hopes,” said the 36-year-old Tibetan, who came here for refuge from India in 2013. “I’m not going to limit myself even if I don’t get a job at the job fair.”

His nerves quickly disappeared when he and other newcomers were greeted by Owen Sound Deputy Mayor Arlene Wright and a team of regional professionals in housing, child-care, education training, employment and community volunteers who were there to answer questions.

“We are really happy to see you here. We are trying to get people to Owen Sound every day,” said a smiling Wright, who led a 10-member expert panel from the region to meet the guests over a free curry chicken and naan lunch.

“We have many opportunities up here. We don’t have four-lane highways. We have many small industries that need labour in this community. We have so much to offer.”

Chomphel asked a manager on the panel in charge of Ontario Works about job opportunities in the social service sector, and was pleasantly surprised that the county would be hiring new case-workers soon.

Another participant, Harjeet Singh, an agronomist from India, was eager to inquire about the job opportunities in the agricultural sector; he was connected with another panelist, who has personal contacts in the industry.

Knowing the job fair only ran for two hours, Birpal Singh, 34, and his wife Simran Kaur, 29, began checking the list of employers and a map of the job fair over lunch so they could hit the spots immediately.

Singh, a business development consultant from India who is fluent in English and French, made quick stops at the RBC and Sunlife booths, but it was the opportunity at Grey County’s economic research and business enterprise branch that attracted him most.

“It’s great we got a chance to talk to all these people. Simran also got the opportunity to explore an opportunity in teaching French and maybe at Georgian College,” said Singh, who just arrived Canada with his spouse on January 31.

“On a scale of 1 to 10, I definitely would rate this event at a 9. I would have given it a 10 if I got a job today.”

“I was interested in being a personal support worker, but they all required a PSW certificate even though I’m much more qualified for the job being a doctor,” noted Masud, before the group made a final stop at Markdale to meet with the human resources manager of Chapman’s Ice-cream, one of the largest employers in the region.

“But I made contact with someone at Grey Bruce Health Services. I will keep looking for opportunities out here.”

As the tour bus was headed to the city through unlit country roads, Rudolph asked the now exhausted newcomers to raise their hands if they would consider relocating to Grey County. They all raised their hands in unison — but said only if they can first secure a job there.

A rural employment job fair will be held at Mississauga’s Maple Banquet Hall on March 20, where employers and officials from 10 rural municipalities will be present to recruit newcomers from the GTA.
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