Kharl Cabatingan will have his own “settler story” to tell his grandchilden one day.
He and wife Ruby Ann became Canadian citizens last year. The couple, both born in the Philippines, has lived in Neepawa not quite all of their young daughter Annikha’s life.
She was born shortly after Kharl emigrated in 2008, initially working in Ontario, as a temporary foreign worker, then transferring to Springhill Farms in the summer of 2009. His and others’ arrival to work at the pork-processing plant just east of town was part of the company’s expansion as a “farm to fork” company becoming HyLife Foods in 2011.
Cabatingan was one of what would be hundreds more young men and women coming here, eager to work, start a new life and bringing family here too. Kharl sponsored Ruby Ann and Annikha after successfully applying through the Provincial Nominee Program (PNP) for permanent residency status. The couple reunited in 2011 after three long years apart — a time both joyous and stressful, they say today.
“In Neepawa it was our first time to live together as a family,” says Ruby Ann. “We’d been apart for almost three years.”
Fast-forward to 2016, and the couple owns a home, has many friends, attends church and is part of a club for young families. Kharl now works as a meat inspector with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). Ruby Ann, having recently earned her Early Childhood Education certification, is employed at the daycare. Annikha, a vivacious seven-year-old, attends school.
They enjoy a lifestyle they only dared imagine when he departed the Philippines, Kharl says.
“For me it’s a dream come true, to be here and providing a better life for my wife and daughter.”
The Cabatingans are a typical family, among the hundreds of young newcomers now calling Neepawa and the area around it home.
HyLife’s growth eventually led to the employment of over 1,200 people at its processing plant and associated facilities, with about 78 per cent of its workforce recruited outside Canada.
Tapping that labour pool was key to the company’s growth, being located where human capital was otherwise limited.
“People are the critical element,” said Guy Baudry, general manager and senior vice-president of HyLife.
“As a business in a small rural community, access to labour is so critically important in order to effectively plan forward.”
Mayor of Neepawa Adrian De Groot says the same thing about keeping a community going. Towns need more, not fewer, people, but until recently Neepawa had been losing not gaining, he said. Now immigration, thanks to the company’s expansion, is growing this town in a regional ‘Land of Plenty’ once more.
“It’s had a very positive impact on our community,” said De Groot. “There’s a feeling of optimism here that wasn’t here maybe three or five years ago.”
For good reason. Nearly one in every four residents in Neepawa (23.6 per cent) is now a newcomer, and the proportion of those ages 20 through to 39 is growing the fastest — the exact opposite of most other rural areas.
A regional economic analysis done in June of 2015 also shows household income is now higher than the rest of the province and there’s been a decrease in lower-income households.
The town’s population is now around 4,200 and growing, meaning there’s more demand for housing and pressure on the schools than ever.
He’d like to say they were ready for it all too, but it’s impossible to be fully prepared, says De Groot.
But housing shortages and schools bursting at the seams are the kinds of “problems” any small town wants. So is more people wanting more jobs than are locally available. Neepawa’s next looming challenge is creating employment for the spouses and these families’ children of working age, said De Groot.
“We see that as an opportunity,” said De Groot.
Likewise, most Prairie towns can only wish they had an immigrant population meriting the settlement programming that’s now offered here.
“We are very, very busy,” says Don Walmsley, who is co-ordinator of staff of six who work at Neepawa and Area Immigrant Settlement Services. Funded through Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, their offices are the former Co-op grocery store. They see a steady stream of people daily, coming for English language classes, orientation programs, and other support services.
De Groot also has high praise for HyLife’s management and its work to help Neepawa settle its burgeoning number of families.
That’s because its intent was to ultimately recruit not just skill sets, but mindsets among those it hired, and bring those who’d want to stay, not just fulfil the terms of their work permit then depart.
“Our position was, ‘we can bring people over, but if we don’t do something to get them involved in the community and get people involved with them, retention won’t happen,’” says Don Dufort, director of human resources for HyLife.
“We started working with the community on housing and integration and settlement services and then within our own operation we started to put resources to ensure we helped them every step of the way through the provincial nominee process,” he said.
“Our intent was for them to become part of our community,” adds Baudry. “Since Day 1 we’ve been committed to ensuring that individuals who wished to become permanent residents had the opportunity.”
Between 2010 up until late fall of 2015 the company had seen 359 of its workers successfully go through the Provincial Nominee Program and become permanent residents. More remain at different stages in the process which can take more than two years to complete.
But as the summer of 2016 begins, it’s still uncertain how wide the very first door passed through — the TFW program itself — will stay open.
The TFW program has been restricted since 2014 when the Conservative government, worried about the program taking jobs from Canadian residents, rewrote the program’s regulations. That’s led to a sliding reduction in the percentage of TFWs companies could hire, from 30 per cent per worksite that year to an anticipated 10 per cent by now.
Last week the federal Liberals announced it will cap that limit at 20 per cent instead, while it reviews the program.
The 20 per cent limit takes effect Canada Day.