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The Winkler Initiative: Lessons in Immigrant Attraction to Rural Areas, Part 1

Lessons from 18th National Metropolis Conference

WinklerSeal  The “Winkler Initiative” may sound like the title for a spy thriller, but in fact it was the name of an innovative pilot project that turned the course of a small, rural community in Manitoba into a prosperous and growing town. Last week, this story was recounted by Mayor of Winkler Martin Harder to a huge audience attending the 18th National Metropolis Conference in Toronto.   Harder was one of the speakers in a Plenary session entitled “Attracting, Retaining and Integrating Newcomers in Smaller Centres: The Role of Employers, Community Actors and Public Institutions.”

In this blog post, I describe the Winkler Initiative and how it came about. In a subsequent post, I will outline some of the conditions that led to this initiative being so successful.

Origins of the Winkler Initiative

Winkler has never been a stranger to migration, but Winkler’s recent immigration boom began as a concerted response to the community’s economic needs and happened in conjunction with creation of Manitoba’s Provincial Nominee Program (PNP). Numerous jobs were unfilled in the community in the mid-1990s, compromising immediate human resource requirements and jeopardizing the expansion of operations, particularly in industries and the agricultural sector.

According to Mayor Harder, Winkler was experiencing a labour shortage, so the City government along with the local Chamber of Commerce approached the province with a request to bring more immigrants to town. Were there any opportunities to utilize immigration to address the community’s human resource needs?

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This became known as the Winkler Initiative and was essentially the first manifestation of a provincial nominee program in which immigrants could arrive based on their meeting provincial selection criteria, with the province assuming responsibility for care after arrival.

The Winkler Initiative resulted in the arrival of 50 German families within a few short years. The arrival of 50 families had been predicted, but their large family size had not. The incoming families tended to have many school-aged children, soon causing schools to be over capacity. Total numbers reached to more than 1,000 persons, in a town of fewer than 9,000 residents at that time. As this population grew and grew in age, a new high school was built in 2013.

Winkler is now Manitoba’s sixth-largest city (as of 2011) and the second fastest growing city out of nine in the province.

Reception and Growth in Winkler

Manitoba Rural Immigration Community Case Studies: Winkler [pdf], a case study paper of the Winkler Initiative describes this organizational structure that the community put in place to receive the newcomers:

The Chamber of Commerce formed the Immigration Integration Committee after the first wave of arrivals and became the main community contact for immigration concerns. It soon became a full time operational committee involving the city, province, economic development and the Chamber of Commerce. Such a process is emblematic of the recent immigration history in Winkler and area, in which the community has taken a keen and active interest in working with the province and offered a concerted effort to facilitate the arrival of immigrants, as well as address the apparent and growing settlement and integration needs after their arrival.     (RDI p.10)

Winkler overview5257945Despite some stresses on housing and schools, the arrival of so many newcomers was remarkably smooth. According to Harder, this was the result of intentional planning: they were very careful to match newcomers to the needs of the community, so that they found work and formed new friends quickly. Also, newcomers were predominantly German Mennonites which was a match to the broader Winkler community in terms of faith and culture.

However, having laid this foundation of successful immigration and integration, further, more diverse immigration to Winkler occurred. Winkler residents saw the benefits of immigration, many of them coming from immigrant backgrounds themselves, and were on the large a welcoming community.

Winkler had a population increase of 14.6% between 2001 and 2006, quite remarkable growth for a small Manitoba community, and the city’s population had grown to 10,670 by 2011, up from 6700 in 2001. 1,832 immigrants settled in Winkler from 1999 to 2004, with 465 arriving in 2004 alone. According to Wikipedia,

“The average household size is 3.0 and the average family size is 3.3, both above the Canadian averages. 15.9% of Winkler’s population is foreign-born.”

Sarah V Wayland

Sarah Wayland, Principal Investigator

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