Population growth. Workforce expansion. Labour market development. However you frame it, Fredericton (and New Brunswick) needs more people if we are going to be a sustainable province for future generations. The province is aging and our growth has been mostly flat for a decade – and it comes down to simple economics.
For generations, New Brunswickers have been leaving for greener pastures in healthier economies – to work in Alberta is the first place that comes to mind, but it’s not just there and it’s difficult to get people back once they’ve settled and put down roots elsewhere. It’s a major problem, but it’s time we turn that problem around into an opportunity because the same is true of people that come to New Brunswick in search of their own opportunities. Immigration isn’t the only solution to our demographic problems and a strong economy is a pre-requisite for retaining substantial numbers, but it must be the centrepiece of any long-term population growth plan. This month, Fredericton took an aggressive step forward in our quest for growth with the launch of a new immigration strategy.
The Fredericton chamber first became formally involved in the immigration sphere with the launch of the Business Immigrant Mentorship Program in 2009. That program was focused on the introduction of newcomers to local business people as mentors and instructors – helping to bridge the gap that existed between doing business in Canada and their home countries. This model has since been rolled out across New Brunswick and in several other western provinces.
In 2014 we rolled out Phase 2, with the Hive Incubator. This immersive business environment provided our city’s entrepreneurial newcomers office space and access to valuable resources – most importantly the other business people in the ecosystem. It has been near or at capacity since it opened.
In 2016, we added Succession Connect – a program with a mandate to match newcomers and existing business owners. In short, the program worked to connect existing ‘for sale’ businesses with newcomer entrepreneurs looking to buy. Getting these two groups together in a confidential and discreet manner could be the difference between a business closing or staying open and retaining a business-minded newcomer and their families or having them move to another province. It is estimated that 75% of small business owners will retire over the next decade, with $1 trillion in business assets changing hands. Less than 10% of them have an established written succession plan. The entrepreneurial nature of these programs really acts as a multiplier effect to the benefits of immigration. These clients are coming to Fredericton to start or purchase businesses, create jobs and propel not just sustainability, but growth.
During the time we were running these entrepreneurial programs, many other groups in the community were also doing great work supporting our newest citizens – these include Ignite Fredericton, the Multicultural Association of Fredericton, our post-secondary institutions, the Multicultural Council of NB, and many more. We were having success and doing some good work together, the local population has been rising but it became clear it wasn’t going to be enough. We at the chamber of commerce, nor our partners, nor the City of Fredericton are content with being sustainable if that just means the status quo – hence a new coordinated strategy.
10 years ago, when we launched our first entrepreneurial immigration program, there was a big gap in business and economic development organizations doing this type of support for immigrants. Most of the community’s effort was focused on settlement – which, of course, is critically important, but only part of what a true immigration strategy should be.
Since then, organizations like the City of Fredericton, Ignite Fredericton, MCAF and others have come to work together to amplify these efforts and make immigration a priority long before we had a formal strategy in place. Particularly since the Vision 2020 plan was conceived and launched, there has been a concerted effort to work together, not duplicate efforts, focus on what each partner does best and support one another for the greater good.
With that context, here’s what the Fredericton Chamber of Commerce is doing. We are handing off the three programs I’ve mentioned to the stewardship of Ignite Fredericton, while increasing our advocacy role with all three levels of governments on issues relating to entrepreneurial immigrants as well as maintaining our role as a key connector for newcomers to the business community.
The three programs are in essence economic development programs that will now be even more integrated into the city’s larger immigration and growth plans through being part of the Ignite Fredericton portfolio and, of course – providing an even better service to the clients for which these programs were created and designed – our newcomer entrepreneurs.
From the chamber’s perspective, we are focused on our members and nothing will help them more than a proper alignment of resources leading to growth. We know the programs are in good hands with Ignite and at the end of the day, the programs don’t belong to the Chamber or Ignite – they belong to the clients. The immigration strategy itself is another great example of the forward-thinking collaboration our community is known for. The stakeholders have been involved with its creation every step of the way and we at the chamber are ready to do our part – our community is counting on it.