It was quite the scene. A plane full of Ukrainian refugees landed Monday evening in St. John’s, with a large group of well-wishers waiting inside the airport, waving flags with vibrant blue and yellow hues.
Politicians were there, too, of course, making the timing of the event – it just happened to coincide with the supper-hour news – that much more conspicuous.
Newfoundland and Labrador thus became the first province to fly Ukrainian refugees, who have fled their country in droves since Russia invaded their country in February.
In addition to meeting a critical humanitarian need, Newfoundland and Labrador has made no bones about looking to Ukrainian refugees to fill job vacancies. Gerry Byrne, the minister of immigration, population growth and skills, said ahead of the flight’s arrival that some of the 166 people on the flight from Poland had jobs they could go to directly (assuming after a good night’s sleep).
Premier Andrew Furey said Monday’s charter would not be the last. He also emphasized that NL’s response was founded from a place of compassion and helping.
“We knew we could step up on the global stage, which we have [done] before, whether it’s 9/11 or in World War I, “said Furey, whose government this winter created a desk in Poland to assist with refugees flooding across the Ukrainian border.
It’s difficult to grasp the magnitude of that flood of humanity. On Thursday, a United Nations organization updated its estimate of the mass migration to say more than six million people have now fled Ukraine in less than three months.
To put that number in perspective, it is more than the population of British Columbia – and with both NL and Prince Edward Island put in there, too.
A safe haven comes first, Furey says
Furey told CBC on Monday that there were about 600 to 700 Ukrainians “now in the queue” in Poland to come to Newfoundland and Labrador.
He also underscored that in addition to a humanitarian response, Newfoundland and Labrador could use the boost to its labor pool.
“Certainly we all know that there are labor demands here. But more importantly, this needs to be a place, a safe haven,” he said.
“So all those details about [labour market] saturations and equilibrium of immigration versus employment job employment opportunities, we’ll sort that out with time, “he said.” First and foremost, we want to provide a safe haven and a place of hope and optimism for these people. “
At face value, it may seem odd that the province with highest unemployment rate in Canada is eager to bring in new job-seekers.
But the job market here is much more complex than it looks, and there are key factors – where someone lives, and how old and skilled they are – connected to the story.
NL’s unemployment rate in April was 10.8 per cent, significantly higher than other Canadian provinces. Those most likely to be unemployed fall into two main groups: those under 25, who are trying to get their feet in a door and get a career rolling, and those over 54, who are trying to keep a career rolling, or at least pay the bills. Similar anxieties, at different ends of the age spectrum.
Despite that number, it’s very common these days to see help wanted signs in the St. John’s area, and to hear from employers in multiple industries – from the booming tech sector to home care to the service economy – say they are having trouble recruiting workers. At least, again, in the metro area.
Indeed, location is a big factor here.
The unemployment rate for St. John’s in April was 7.2 per cent. Not the lowest among Canadian cities (hello, Quebec City, which is at 2.6 per cent), but comparable to Calgary (7.1 per cent) and not really that far from Toronto, at 6.4 per cent.
Once you factor St. John’s out of the equation, a grimmer picture emerges for the rest of the province. The rest of the province has an unemployment rate of 15.9 per cent.
The province’s well-known demographic problems – there are now far more older adults than there are young children – provide the sobering subtext behind all these conversations. The recently released national census showed NL was the only province to lose population during that five-year period.
The number of births has been under 4,000 per year for a while, and that’s expected to continue for years. By contrast, the number of annual deaths is already more than 5,000 per year, and that number is expected to climb to as much as 8,000 per year in the next two decades.
The Ukrainians are arriving to a job market that may be recruiting, but has some issues. New Canadians have pointed out that there are many problems to be resolved, particularly a lack of consistent medicare coverage.
‘This could really help our economy’
Nonetheless, employers are looking. Wanda Cuff-Young, who works with the agency Work Global Canada, told CBC News last month that she quickly heard from a wide number of professions when she posted an email address in a Facebook group aiming to connect refugees with work and amenities.
“Nurses, IT people, engineers, lecturers, marketing… they come from a very diverse background,” Cuff-Young told The St. John’s Morning Show.
The Current18:52Helping Ukrainian refugees start a new life in Newfoundland
Right now, the first planeload of Ukrainian refugees are settling in, and groups like the Association of New Canadians are hustling to put in place the creature comforts that people need. Housing, child care and other issues need to be sorted, as much as matching newcomers with work they can take on.
As well, no one knows how long the Ukrainians may stay. The Russian war is still raging, and it’s not at all unlikely that some on the chartered flights will want to seek their fortune in other provinces.
But Cuff-Young is optimistic, and points out that Newfoundland and Labrador has long benefited from people arriving from other shores.
“This could really help our economy,” said Cuff-Young. “New people bring new business, new ideas.”
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