Laurie Sawatzky can remember when local grocery stores were stocked with the kinds of foods eaten by folks of Mennonite background.
The execut ive di rector of Winkler-based Regional Connections, a settlement agency serving the large number of immigrants pouring into southern Manitoba, says seeing food ingredients from all parts of the world is just one sign of how things have changed.
Languages spoken across southern Manitoba are no longer primarily German and English either. Russian, Ukrainian, Spanish, Chinese, and Arabic are others spoken among newly settled immigrants representing over 70 countries of origin.
Earlier this month, 188 newcomers were sworn in as new Canadian citizens at what’s believed to be the largest-ever citizenship swearing-in ceremony to take place outside Winnipeg. The Dec. 2 ceremony was held at Winkler Elementary School.
Southern Manitoba began to open its doors to immigrants about a decade ago.
That’s when a pilot project in Winkler, jointly supported by council, the business community and the economic development corporation, brought in 50 skilled tradespersons to fill vacant industry jobs. That was also the beginning of Manitoba’s Provincial Nominee Program.
“Winkler was at the start of this, and then it spread throughout the south,” says Sawatzky. The head office of Regional Connections is in Winkler, with satellite offices in Altona and Morden.
The foundation for population growth was actually laid many years earlier, according to Winkler’s retired economic development officer Walter Siemens.
In the early 1950s, Winkler was just another small, struggling rural community with a population of about 1,100. A consultants’ report of the time suggested their prospects for growth were remote, says Siemens.
“From a school growth standpoint Winkler was not earmarked as a community that would grow,” says Siemens.
Such a report could have been demoralizing. But it became catalyst for change.
“It made us determined to prove it wrong,” he said. “We said, ‘we shall not let this happen.’” That led to much discussion among business leaders who then set a goal; for every student graduating from high school they would see that a job was created.
Shortly thereafter, a garment industry was attracted to Winkler. It created 100 jobs but that’s not all it did. “What that did was tell us if we worked together and pulled together we could make industry happen,” says Siemens. “It changed attitudes.”
With a view to growing from within, new companies, started by local entrepreneurs began to emerge. At one point in the mid-1960s, there were 17 sod-turnings for new enterprises in just one day, Siemens recalls.
DEMANDS FOR HOUSING
By the 1990s, they had jobs enough for local persons and more besides. That’s when growth through immigration became critical, says Siemens.
A similar approach has been taken throughout the south. Altona, for example, also set a goal in the late 1990s to grow through immigration, and has since attracted hundreds of new residents now employed by large local employers.
The population growth is seen right across, with growth experienced throughout the small villages and rural municipalities of the region. The R. M. of Stanley’s population, for example, grew 25 per cent between 2002 and 2006. In 2002, a StatsCan report also dubbed it the youngest municipality in Canada with half its population under the age of 25.
Many of these young families, whose roots may be rural in their countries of origin, find rural properties most desirable and are snatching up places for sale – or building new. Realtors say the value of rural acreages has easily doubled in the last decade.
The influx of newcomers continues to find employment largely in the region’s expanding industrial and commercial base, but many have also begun to create small businesses.
Winkler now sees an average of 35 new business startups every year, says Chamber of Commerce president Betty Hiebert.
“It is unbelievable, there are so many new businesses,” she said. These new businesses range from carpentry shops to interior-decorating companies.
Hiebert says if there’s any secret to successful growth of a community it lies with being determined to work together. Communities don’t get anywhere if they are fighting back and forth, or can’t decide how to resolve their depopulation woes.
“As a community, we’ve all wanted to move in the same direction,” said Hiebert. “We’re all on the same page,” she said.