New immigrants learn to love BC’s north

Written By Keith Norbury

“Kitimat is the most beautiful community I’ve lived in, hands down.”

Walsham Tenshak

The small coastal B.C. community of Kitimat might seem an unlikely place to find other expat Nigerians, but Walsham Tenshak discovered the opposite.

“We have an entire community,” said Tenshak, who moved to Kitimat a year ago. “We had a picnic in the summer. We’ve got a WhatsApp group chat going on. We participated in the Canada Day Parade. It’s surprisingly not a small Nigerian community here.”

Tenshak, still in her 20s, originally came to Canada in 2019 to pursue a master’s degree in development economics at the University of Northern B.C. (UNBC) in Prince George. Her parents and siblings soon joined her in Prince George, where they’re still living. 

But in 2021 Tenshak moved west to work for the Regional District of Kitimat-Stikine, where she became economic development officer. Then, in November 2022, she became director of economic development and communications at the District of Kitimat.

“Kitimat is the most beautiful community I’ve lived in, hands down,” Tenshak said. “I enjoy the quality of life that I get in Kitimat. The cost of living is not exorbitant. And it is a very welcoming community for how small it is.”

More than 20 per cent of new British Columbians settled outside Vancouver

Tenshak is part of a growing trend of new immigrants gravitating to the province’s northern and rural areas.

In 2021, B.C.’s population increased by more than 100,000 people, about two-thirds from outside Canada. While the majority still move to Metro Vancouver, more and more new residents are settling in less populated communities around the province.

Between 2016 and 2021 more than 20 per cent of new B.C. immigrants reportedly came to areas outside Metro Vancouver. That’s a 10 per cent increase over immigration trends in the 1990s, according to the Ministry of Municipal Affairs.

“Vancouver’s the first stop [for many]. But the question is, is it the last stop?” said Marleen Morris, co-director of UNBC’s Community Development Institute.

“Vancouver’s the first stop [for many]. But question is, is it the last stop?”

Marleen Morris

“Sometimes it might take a number of months, maybe a number of years, maybe even a number of decades, to go from where they first stopped to where they eventually settled.”

Cheaper housing costs, comparable income outside Vancouver

recent report co-authored by Morris reveals compelling reasons why so many are venturing beyond the province’s largest urban areas.

Crunching data from the 2021 Canadian Census, the report’s authors found average annual shelter costs were 31 per cent less for renters in non-metro B.C. and 40 per cent less for homeowners. 

Meanwhile, median family incomes remained competitive in non-metro B.C. at $80,566, compared with $90,000 for Metro Vancouver.

Communities varied, of course. For instance, Chetwynd ($104,000) and Tumbler Ridge ($101,00) had higher average household incomes in 2021 than did Metro Vancouver, but very low housing vulnerability (when more than 30 per cent of household income goes to shelter costs).

Tumbler Ridge, the land of dinosaurs and outdoor adventure, has ideal circumstances: high income and low shelter insecurity. [Photo District of Tumbler Ridge]

Whereas 24 per cent of homeowners living in the Vancouver area were considered housing vulnerable, only five per cent of homeowners and 10 per cent of renters in Tumbler Ridge were categorized vulnerable.

It was a similar story for Kitimat. 

Median household income in Kitimat was $103,000 with only six per cent of homeowners experiencing housing vulnerability. For renters, that proportion was 26 per cent, still markedly lower than 39 per cent of renters in the Vancouver area.

Add to that, the median sale price of a single-family home in northern B.C. was $460,000 in July 2023. That compares with a median price of $1.2 million for a single family home in Greater Victoria, and a benchmark price of $2 million for Metro Vancouver.

New post-secondary schools attract students, families to rural areas

It takes more than cheap housing to entice new immigrants to locate to a community, however.

“There tons are tons of houses nobody is taking because there is no livelihood,” said Rajendar Singh Parmar, a regulated immigration consultant and president of Prince George-based Invision Immigration Consulting Ltd.

On the other hand, Parmar acknowledged that rent and housing prices in Vancouver are so high many can’t afford to live there, particularly those making minimum wage. 

It was that high cost of living in Metro Vancouver that prompted him to settle in Prince George.

“I could not afford to live [in Vancouver] and commute so long to work because when I moved here I was almost 50,” said Parmar, who came to Canada from Chandigarh, a city of a million in the Punjab province of India.

Parmar said most of the immigrants he represents are younger. One of the draws in Prince George is the College of New Caledonia, which now has campuses across northern B.C. and enrolls about 5,000 students a year.

“That’s a big help,” Parmar said.

“[After school] they move somewhere because they don’t find a steady job here.”

Rajendar Singh Parmar

However, after two or three years at college, and a few more years trying to launch careers in Prince George, they sometimes move on.

“Then they move somewhere because they don’t find a steady job here,” Parmar said. “And new students come. There is more pressure on an older generation competing with younger; younger is cheaper.”

How to love the north

To stay in a northern community, it helps to fall in love with it. And sometimes that means falling in love with a local.

That was the case for Jocelyn Peters, who came to Fort. St. John in 2010 from the Philippines. She met her future husband, Cam, and they now have two children.

“My husband, he is not a fan of the big city,” said Peters, who is originally from Manila, the second-largest city in the Philippines.

Jocelyn Peters with her husband Cam and their daughters Gabriela (L) and Lara, in Fort St. John. [Photo supplied]

Back home, Peters was a registered nurse, but wasn’t qualified to practise in Canada so she worked in human resources until late 2022, when she became a licensed immigration consultant. 

Since Peters started accepting clients this January, she has helped about 30 people navigate the process. Only a fraction of them were destined for Fort St. John.

“My profession deals more with helping and guiding immigrants who want to come here to Canada and start a new life, not necessarily here in Fort St. John,” said Peters, the founder of Volte Intercontinental Visa and Immigration Inc.

Most clients already have relatives in Canada and would prefer to live near their families, she said. Even those who reunite with family in Fort St. John will often leave for the big cities.

“Given a chance, I believe immigrants would rather go to cities because there’s more amenities,” Peters said.

That includes more options for work and education, however, competition is fierce.

Less competition in north, but there’s winter

“Here in rural areas, like Fort St. John, the demand for the educated and professionals are higher. And in terms of competition, there’s not much competition,” Peters said.

The weather, though, can be a deal-breaker in a place like Fort St. John where winter temperatures can sink to -40 C.

“Mostly the guy, the head of the family, they’re content. As long as they have jobs, they can provide for their family,” said Peters. “But I think the concern more is with women.”

Depending on the community, housing can also be expensive in small towns. In Fort St. John, just renting a room can cost $800, Peters said.

“So what actually immigrants are doing is they live with their friends or relatives and they chip in to pay for the room or for the house,” Peters said.

‘Hinterland migration’ on upswing

Richard Kurland, a Vancouver immigration lawyer and policy analyst with the national law firm Kurland, Tobe, said the trend is toward increasing “hinterland” and Francophone immigration in Canada.

“To increase hinterland migration, it’s not rocket science,” Kurland said. “The policy tools available include ministerial instructions, or the weighting using points of an application.”

“While the trend of increased geographic diversity is positive, we know there’s more we can do to attract and retain newcomers outside Metro Vancouver,” a Ministry of Municipal Affairs spokesperson said in an email to Northern Beat.

The ministry objective is to have 30 per cent of nominees settling outside the Vancouver area.

Among other initiatives, the ministry is tweaking the points system for immigrants under the B.C. Provincial Nominee Program to award extras points to those studying or working outside Metro B.C.

Both the federal government, through its immigration points system, and the provinces, via their nominee programs, are improving their systems, Kurland noted.

Canada’s express entry program, for example, has a comprehensive ranking system that awards points for criteria such as age, education, official language proficiency, and Canadian work experience.

In the age category, a maximum of 110 points are awarded for a single person in their twenties. Someone with a partner gets slightly less. Immigrants over 45 years old and those 17 or younger earn zero points.

As of June 28, changes to the federal program now prioritize workers with special skills in areas including health care and technology, while the provincial nominee program offers registrants extra points if they work outside the Lower Mainland.

In 2022, B.C. nominated a record 7,000 people for permanent residence under the program. 

The federal government intends to increase nominations for the next three years with B.C. expected to reach 10,000 nominees by 2025, notes the program’s 2022 annual review.

From ‘checkbox’ to ‘Goldfish bowl’ system

Kurland said Canada’s immigration regime has evolved from a “checkbox” system in which immigrants had to check boxes and wait in line for their visas to “the goldfish bowl system,” in which applicants needed to be working or studying in B.C. in order to earn points to become permanent residents.

“So you create an inventory of temporary-status people,” Kurland said. “And then from within that inventory, you pick the top-scoring fish.”

“You just have to be faster than your buddy.”

Richard Kurland

Hitting a specific points target isn’t necessarily the goal. It’s akin to that old story about out-running a bear: You don’t have to out-run the bear. “You just have to be faster than your buddy,” Kurland said.

Many of those seeking permanent residency are foreign students who might earn points from post-graduate work or work permits. Since most of those universities and colleges are in big cities, Kurland said one creative way to encourage more migration to non-metro areas is for the federal government to finance, alongside the province, the creation of more smaller urban area universities.

“That way your goldfish bowl design will attract people into the hinterland,” he said.

Indeed just that has happened in recent decades in B.C. with the establishment of the University of Northern B.C., and the University of Vancouver Island in Nanaimo.

Without immigration, Canada’s population would shrink, leaving fewer working-age people to pay the taxes to finance an aging population’s pensions and Medicare. So Canada encourages young people from other countries, whose education is already paid for, to come here.

“And when they come here, they’re working and paying taxes. And those taxes are going to be what’s going to pay for Medicare and pensions,” Kurland said. “And you keep out the older people because that would be counterproductive.”

So Canada dangles the hope of permanent residency even though most won’t receive it. “And as long as they are appraised of that risk, it’s fair game,” Kurland said.

‘Kitimat Bound’

Kitimat is nevertheless promoting the city as a destination for newcomers. The “Kitimat Bound“ website provides information to those considering a move to Kitimat “so that they’re well informed of what to expect when they come here,” Tenshak said.

In 2021, household income in Kitimat was among the highest for any community in B.C., according to a UNBC CDI report. [Source: StatsCan 2021 Census; Graphic: UNBC CDI]

The project has received grant funding and council approval. “This is not just spray-and-pray marketing,” Tenshak said, adding that it involved intensive research to identify who might consider moving to a north coastal community like Kitimat.

From its beginnings as an “instant town” in the 1950s, Kitimat has always attracted a large immigrant community — from Portugal, Germany, Italy, India, and elsewhere. The original draw was an aluminum smelter, originally built by the Aluminum Company of Canada (Alcan) and now owned by Anglo-Australian multinational Rio Tinto. 

From the 60s on, the economy diversified, but by the early 2000s, a methanol plant and pulp mill had closed and Alcan had slashed its workforce, shrinking Kitimat’s population from almost 13,000 in 1981 to just over 8,000 35 years later. Since 2021, the population has crept up slightly as new projects develop.

“People move here for two years and then stay for a lifetime.”

Walsham Tenshak

Kitimat is expected to grow steadily once the LNG Canada terminal is completed in a few years, with the Cedar LNG project to follow.

“Just within [the LNG terminal] construction, pre-commissioning phase, we have seen quite an increase in newcomers to the community, and some of them immigrants too,” Tenshak said.

While Tenshak loves the quiet and the mountains of Kitimat and is content with her life there, she said she’s moved around the past, including back home in Nigeria. So she isn’t about to make any firm predictions about her own future.

“But I will say that a famous joke in Kitimat is that people move here for two years and then stay for a lifetime,” Tenshak said. “So we’ll have to see what life does.”