With just a few weeks to go until the May 12 provincial election, Premier Gordon Campbell and the BC Liberals put on their brightest smiles and their best kurta at Surrey’s Vasakhi parade, the celebration of Sikh New Year.
The BC NDP and the federal Conservatives were also out in full force. It marked an about-face from last year, when politicians boycotted the Surrey parade as a result of organizers’ decision to display photographs of Sikh nationalist martyrs, including Air India terrorism suspects.
Their change of heart coincides with a major turn in immigration to the province. In the last quarter of 2008, India overtook China as the number-one source of immigrants to BC. The majority of Indian immigrants are from Punjab, India’s business-savvy northern state and the spiritual heartland of Sikhism.
Politicians are finding themselves jostling to court the fastest-growing immigrant group. “The Punjabi population in the Lower Mainland is increasingly important because of its size, involvement in community affairs, and political influence,” said Yuen Pau Woo, Director of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.
Premier Campbell used the parade as an opportunity to announce that the province is establishing an office in Chandigarh, Punjab’s state capital and IT hub, to boost the immigration of skilled workers to British Columbia.
“We want to continue to be a country and a province that welcomes people from all over the world as we build an even better place for us to live,” he said to a crowd of thousands of the province’s 159,000 Punjabi-speaking residents.
Related: Slideshow: Vaisakhi Parade 2009
Immigration crucial to BC
The liaison for the new BC office will spend six months in Chandigarh and six months in the Lower Mainland. Organizers hope to convince Indian entrepreneurs and skilled workers to relocate to Canada under the Provincial Nominee Program, which accelerates the immigration process for in-demand jobs such as engineers, computer programmers, and nurses.
The Canadian economy is increasingly dependent on its ability to siphon foreign workers. Statistics Canada predicts that by 2011, due to the country’s low birth rate, immigration will provide all labour force growth. In 2006 alone, over 6,000 people emigrated to BC from India. The province has the highest Punjabi population in Canada.
Liberal MLA Dave Hayer, who is seeking re-election in Surrey-Tynehead and was born in Punjab, said feedback from Indian communities about the Chandigarh office has been largely positive. “If it makes a difference voting-wise, fine, but I think my constituents will not look at it from a vote point of view. They will say, is it good for the economy? The main focus of this election is the economy, because of the financial crisis,” he said. “This office is going to be really good for us.”
But labour experts wonder if encouraging the immigration of foreign workers will backfire on the government. Census data also shows that while immigrants are twice as likely as Canadian-born residents to be university educated, they suffer from significant wage discrepancies for decades after their arrival. Statscan notes this trend is continuing “in spite of the discussion regarding the rising demand for more highly-skilled workers in Canada.”
“Wages sound good until they get here and have to live in a place like Vancouver. So you know, it doesn’t turn out very well,” said Marjorie Cohen, a political science professor at Simon Fraser University, who specializes in international trade and the Canadian economy. “There’s no particular reason to be doing this now, except to undermine the wages of the workers.”
Ambarish Chandra, an Assistant Professor at the Sauder School of Business who specializes in economics and business strategy, and was educated partially in Delhi, hopes the Chandigarh project will be different. “Programs like the [Provincial Nominee] Program or this particular initiative to directly match foreign workers to places in BC are better, because we know that these immigrants are going to come and have jobs the day they land.”
The battle for foreign workers
A recent article in the New York Times detailed the resistance that foreign IT workers meet in the United States. The author concluded, “United States will struggle to compete if it cannot more easily hire foreign-born engineers.”
That competition may well be directly to the north. The Times story ends with one high-level Google employee discussing his growing allegiance to Canada. The Indian engineer has been living in Toronto while awaiting US citizenship.
“In Canada, there’s a general acceptance that we need to attract immigrants to promote the economy,” said Chandra. “It’s not as broadly accepted in the States. For one thing, their national population growth rate is higher, and there’s a larger concern that foreign workers might displace jobs.”
The Chandigarh office is the latest project of the BC Asia Pacific Initiative, which is meant to encourage Asian investors, entrepreneurs and skilled workers to think of BC as the “pacific gateway” to North America. “The economy in Asia is growing much faster than anywhere else in the world,” said Hayer. India’s economy, in particular, is growing at twice the rate of Canada’s.
If 2008’s immigration trends continue, those efforts may have paid off. At the very least, it has politicians brushing up on their Punjabi. Before the Premier left the stage at Vaisakhi, he let loose the traditional call-and-answer cry of Sikhism. “Bollaaaaaaaaaaaaaay so nihaal!” he shouted, amid chuckles from the audience.