Alberta’s current economy is making everyone a bit anxious. With layoffs and job shortages, most industry leaders are concerned that this recession will lead us back to the critical worker shortage of the early 2000s. Layoffs and job losses now mean Alberta is already starting to lose its skilled labourers as they relocate to find work elsewhere, and that means Alberta might not have the work force it needs to meet the demands of a booming economy when things start to pick up again, and that will push it right back into another recession.
However, as many industries are struggling to find a way to keep skilled labourers employed in Edmonton, one aspect of Edmonton’s economy is still bringing in—and maintaining—new skills and insights: immigration.
Whether Alberta’s economy is robust or in a slow-down, immigration is always helping to create new employment opportunities, introduce new skills, and fill gaps in the economy. As Dr. Vivian Abboud, owner and founder of Viva Café Cafeterias Inc., describes, immigration creates a win-win situation for everyone involved.
“There are lots of reasons for why people come to Canada, and they are positive ones,” quotes Abboud. “Lots of people come from different countries where there are no opportunities, or where society is not meeting their needs. Immigration creates answers to those needs. It’s a big gift. There are no limits to what a person can do in Canada, but it also benefits the welcoming community who is looking to expand and develop. Immigrants are change makers, and on a global level, they are able to bring richness and learning into the economy.”
Abboud emphasizes, “It’s a win-win situation, especially in a country like our country, and in a city like Edmonton. I’ve always felt there is a uniqueness here. Edmonton is a city that struggles to include, adapt, and modify—just look at what’s happening downtown. All those events were not happening 10 years ago. Edmonton is taking on a leadership role, and immigrants are a part of that driving force.
“Although the economy is slow, there are still opportunities, and those opportunities rely on our role as engaged and ethical citizens who refuse to give up. Edmonton’s economy will ramp up and get better, but we need to be ready. If we aren’t ready for the economy, we’ll end up back where we were: with a shortage of workers and skilled labourers.”
Immigration plays an important role in Edmonton’s ability to hold onto its skilled labourers, Abboud continues. “Even though there are not enough jobs in specific industries, there are still jobs in Edmonton, and immigrants are willing to work different jobs. They want to learn English and develop skills. They want to help the communities they’ve been welcomed into, they want to earn wages, and they bring new insights, skills, and wisdom into the work force as a result.”
Sponsored by her husband, Abboud immigrated to Canada from Lebanon when she was 17, after finishing her exams and receiving her diploma as a doctor. “It was destiny,” she describes. “It was not an arranged wedding. I was just born to live in Canada.
“I’ve always volunteered in the community, and through volunteering, I realized there were lots of women who don’t get the opportunity to leave their homes and connect with others. It felt like there were lots of glass ceilings; it was hard to know how to get to places and bridge out. It made me realize that I wanted to be a change maker and make opportunities for others.
“I noticed a business opportunity where I could open cafeterias and have immigrant women build on their experiences, improve their English, connect with other women, and understand more of what is available so they can make their own choices.”
That’s how Viva Café got started. Operating through high school cafeterias and in the botanical gardens at the University of Alberta, Viva Café is a family and community-run catering company that focuses on providing healthy meal options while creating jobs for immigrant women.
“These women have a lot of wisdom, knowledge, skills, and commitment,” Abboud explains. “They all have big dreams, and not many people have believed in them or taken them seriously, but we can learn so much from them if we just listen.
“What makes Edmonton so rich and unique is its diversity,” Abboud concludes. “Immigration creates a plurality in thinking, doing, and acting; it introduces talents and skills that we don’t always have here, and it fills gaps to diversify our economic society. If Edmonton wants to continue to be a leader of change and part of globalization, then we need to open our doors and allow immigration to create a diverse economy and a multicultural society that can perform on the global level.”
Nancy Zein, executive director of the Canadian Arab Friendship Association, agrees that the route to economic success lies in immigration. “Immigration is very important to Alberta, both culturally and financially,” Zein explains. “Considering how young Alberta is, immigrations brings to the province a richness in culture, knowledge, and experience that a young province needs. In return, many of the immigrants invest in the province, and that helps it economically.”
Sponsored by an older brother who was already in Canada, Zein immigrated to Edmonton with her parents when she was still in elementary school.
Zein later joined the Canadian Arab Friendship Association (CAFA), first volunteering in a board member position before becoming executive director. “The reason I decided to join CAFA,” she explains, “is because I believed in their mandate, and I believed in CAFA’s mission and vision.”
First established in 1965, CAFA is a community services agency that seeks to preserve Arab heritage while housing a variety of projects that are designed to provide immigrants with support, a community, a voice, and a bridge to the resources that are available in Edmonton. Services include assisting with prenatal and postnatal care for Arab women who have language and cultural difficulties, creating an Arab-English playschool for kids, ESL and citizenship classes, and assistance with applying for official documentation, including passports, travel permissions, and visitor’s visas.
“I believe it is a great thing to have an organization that can truly help newcomers and give them all the support possible. When my family and I were new to Canada, there was not much of a support system in place for newcomers,” notes Zein. “Edmonton is a great city to move to. Edmontonians respect and accept the ethnic mosaic that makes up this great country.”
Immigration has proven to be crucial to Edmonton’s economic environment, too. Zein explains, “Immigrants are 30 per cent more likely to start a business, and immigrant-owned businesses create jobs. Immigrants in Canada are our engineers, scientists, and innovators, therefore boosting earnings for Canadian workers, but they also have a lot of purchasing power, and that alone is crucial to our economic success. Increased immigration to Canada has increased the earnings of Canadians because immigrants boost demand for local consumer goods.”
If the key to Edmonton’s economic success is through holding onto its skilled workers, then the diversity of skills that can be brought into Edmonton through immigration is an important aspect of Edmonton’s ability to move forward, both financially and culturally, towards a stronger economy.