Remarks to Joint Dinner of the Greater Halifax Partnership and the Nova Scotia Office of Immigration

Gordon M. Nixon
President & Chief Executive Officer
Royal Bank of Canada

May 5, 2010
Halifax, Nova Scotia

Thank you very kindly, Paul.

Mr. Premier, Minister Jennex, Honoured Guests, and friends.

More than 140 years ago, the roots of RBC were first planted here with the founding of the Merchants Bank of Halifax so our history is deeply tied to this city. So it is indeed a great pleasure to be here and to have the opportunity to discuss an issue that is of great importance to the future of this province.

Tonight I am pleased to be able to talk about a subject important to me, important to Halifax and important to our country. Embracing diversity and immigration is not only vital to Canada's social agenda: Diversity and immigration are, by all measures, critical elements of our shared economic agenda as well.

As CEO of RBC, I am always pleased to represent my company and my country on the international stage. And when doing so, I believe very passionately that Canada is the best country for people to live, to build futures and to be part of a greater community.

This is a country largely built by the efforts, the ingenuity and the foresight of newcomers - the contributions of immigrants to the well being of Canada, Nova Scotia and Halifax is evident everywhere.

Their legacy is one to be proud of, but the issues, challenges and solutions facing immigrants today are not the same as in past generations. Our responsibility is to define a new reality of inclusion for newcomers to our communities and our country.

I know this audience is filled with people who came directly, or whose families emigrated to Canada from other countries with dreams and hopes of making a better life. My grandfather and his family emigrated to Halifax and settled in the Truro area. Halifax has welcomed newcomers for centuries and the museum at Pier 21 is a treasure celebrating and retelling the city's great history of how new immigrants came to help build this city and our country.

Today, these stories continue to be created. Created by people like Dr. Jim Spatz or Wadih Fares.

Dr. Spatz's parents survived the Holocaust and came to Nova Scotia in 1950. After completing his medical degree at Dalhousie, Jim practiced medicine in Montreal before returning to Halifax and taking up the family business of real estate development and community philanthropy.

Wadih Fares came to Canada from Lebanon and has built the W.M. Fares Group into a celebrated building design and construction project management firm. As long as Wadih has been developing the buildings in which people live and work, he has worked to develop the communities united within them. He has shown that he believes strongly in celebrating the unique talents and contributions everyone brings to this province and country.

There are hundreds more equally compelling stories of immigrants who have brought their talents, skills and experiences to make a profound impact on this city and indeed on our country.

While their contributions are surely a part of our shared history, there is considerable evidence that also points to immigration and diversity as drivers of future prosperity for Canada and other Western economies. In this context, our history of opening our country's doors to welcome people from all over the world gives me every confidence that Canada can lead the world.

In an era when many countries are becoming more polarized and less tolerant, Canada has an unparalleled opportunity to use immigration and diversity as a major competitive advantage.

But leadership will not come without effort.

If Canada is to continue to improve its standard of living, we must do more to become the destination of choice for skilled immigrants — scientists, professionals and entrepreneurs.

We must do a better job of leveraging the diversity of our current and future workforce. If we do, we will have an unrivalled advantage. If we don't, we will face an uphill battle just to maintain our quality of life.

Declining birthrates are not keeping pace with the demands of growing economies, and, as a result of demographic shifts, immigrants are expected to account for all net Canadian labour force growth by 2011, and for all net population growth by 2031.

Last summer, the OECD urged its 30 member countries - including Canada - to improve efforts to help immigrants become better trained and more integrated into the job market. OECD recognized that immigration to many western countries has declined and the workforce in western countries is aging - both trends that will have implications beyond the current economic crisis.

Canada's labour challenges are real and will impede future long-term economic growth if we do not find a coordinated strategy to leverage the skills and talents of people who have come here from other countries looking for nothing more than a real chance to succeed.

A general labour shortage will become a normal fact of life in the next decade for all Canadians. Consider this: If nothing changes, by 2026 one in every eight jobs in the country will go unfilled.

As CEO of a major Canadian employer, I am highly aware of these challenges and see a solution in the critical talent and skills that new immigrants bring to our communities as employees and as clients.

But I also see that we are facing greater competition for skilled immigrants from other countries. Unfortunately, recent immigrants to Canada continue to have a difficult time contributing to the best of their abilities when they move here.

They may be better educated than those born in Canada, but many have not found jobs that match their skill levels, or are earning less than people born in Canada. In 2005, RBC Economics found that if all new Canadians were fully employed, at their level of education and experience, earning equal pay to someone born in Canada, personal income would increase by $13 billion a year.

These higher incomes would have obvious multiplier effects in markets for housing and consumer spending, as well as savings and investment - all critical elements today in building economic growth. Faced with this huge potential benefit, our business community is falling short of the challenge and not doing enough to tap the potential of immigrants in our workforce, many of whom are visible minorities.

The difficulties that newcomers to Canada - particularly those who have landed more recently - face in finding employment or finding employment related to their background and experiences are well known by everyone in this room.

Immigrants face barriers that include a lack of recognition of foreign professional or educational credentials; degree and length of work experience abroad and within Canada; language barriers and related difficulties; lack of professional networks; and knowledge of and information about the Canadian labour market. These issues are particularly relevant for those who have arrived more recently.

Removing and overcoming many of these barriers will require, in some measure, courage, leadership and political will. But it is critical if we are going to be a destination of choice for skilled people in a globally competitive market.

Business, community and political leaders can no longer talk about what we can do tomorrow to integrate skilled immigrants into our economy. We need to focus today on what we will do to tap into the intellectual capital of skilled immigrants and invest in our country's future.

This cannot be about window dressing. It must be about business and community leaders embracing diversity and our differences, and putting our brains, our hearts and our wallets behind Canada's leadership journey.

Unleashing the power of diversity and capitalizing on immigration should be one of Canada's best competitive advantages. Canada is already known to be one of the most diverse nations on earth - and for many around the world, this is a central theme of the Canadian brand.

Tapping into the talent pool of skilled immigrants is important for Canada, and as many of you have said numerous times, it's also very important for Nova Scotia and for Halifax.

But when you look at the numbers, Nova Scotia and Halifax are losing out on the talent coming into this country.

In 2008 over 245,000 immigrants came to Canada, but just over 2,600 people chose Nova Scotia as their home. And, according to census data from 2006, Halifax is attracting far below its share of newcomers to contribute to the growth and vitality of this region.

Only slightly more than 7 per cent of the population here are immigrants, compared to the national average of close to 20 per cent. And in the first half of the past decade, immigrants to Halifax accounted for a bit more than 1 per cent of the overall population.

Halifax can and must do more. Halifax can and must do better to attract more than its share of immigrants and sustain economic growth for the future.

Your future prosperity demands it.

According to government statistics, there will be over 56,000 job openings in Nova Scotia over the next five years, the result of retirement and new job creation. Retirements are such a large generator of job openings in the province that for every job opening created by employment growth, five additional openings will be created due to retirements.

Employment growth in Greater Halifax has outpaced population growth — virtually every area in and around this city is growing. And yet, the city has not yet been able to capitalize on the rich talent of skilled immigrants coming to Canada each year.

Now, more than ever, companies must seize the moment to leverage the valuable international education, skills and talents immigrants bring with them to Canada.

Why? Because Canada's future prosperity will be based on the very skills and creativity found in the diverse perspectives of people who are new to our country. Doing more to attract and integrate skilled immigrants in our companies is, in fact, a critical aspect of nation building that enhances the health and vitality of our cities and communities.

It's clear to me that the Greater Halifax Partnership understands this - attracting and retaining immigrants is central to your SmartBusiness initiative and the GHP membership and the Halifax Region Immigration Leadership Council deserve credit for their work to address the obstacles to better integrating immigrants in the work force.

As a long-time member of the Halifax community, RBC is proud to join in your efforts.

I want to take a moment and recognize Greg Grice, our regional president for Atlantic Canada and a member of the GHP board of directors. Greg and I and my other colleagues at RBC have seen firsthand the impact that a culture of inclusion and diversity can have in a business.

We tend to look at diversity through two lenses - clearly it is the right thing to do, but it also represents incredible business potential.

RBC has emerged from the recent tough times stronger and better positioned than many of our competitors - and I believe that diversity is one of the sources of that strength. By giving everyone a seat at the table, we have expanded our collective brain-trust - and we have driven innovation, growth and competitive advantage.

Through the hard work of our leaders and our people, we have embedded diversity throughout our business and the results have changed the look of our leadership: Forty per cent of our executives are now women, and 14% are visible minorities - the numbers speak for themselves.

To ignore the value offered by huge parts of the workforce and potential client base is a missed business opportunity. We have clients who are new immigrants and it makes sense to have employees that share their background, their language and their perspective. We are also a global company and we benefit greatly from the international experience of new Canadians.

We believe that to succeed, we must harness everyone's talents and energy and apply them to achieving our common goals. When our employees, our clients and our communities achieve their full potential, RBC wins too. It's the right thing to do, and it's just smart business. It may sound simple, but if we want to stay an industry leader, we need to attract the best people. Increasingly, that means positioning ourselves as the employer of choice for talent - regardless of whether their experience is international or Canadian. Doesn't the same make sense for your business?

So what can you do to keep Halifax moving forward?

As Chair of the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council, I've been impressed with their multi-stakeholder approach and I recommend that any initiatives undertaken here include innovative government policies and programs, an engaged business sector, creative community organizations and passionate individuals.

Good policy needs more than lofty ambition, and needs more than good intentions to come to life. Ideas must be practical, actionable and tangible. Step by step, actions must be taken to create incremental change that will lead to real differences in the strength of our communities.

All levels of governments must be bold and create an adequate infrastructure to help both new Canadians and future immigrants maximize their potential. We need language training programs, settlement programs, and mentoring and internship programs that can provide them with Canadian work experience. And we urgently need a system for professions and trades to recognize foreign credentials and certifications in the context of our own laws and regulations.

As business leaders, we all know that markets are changing, and we intuitively understand that to best serve the market, we must hire the market.

As employers and business leaders, we must become agents of change, and give energy to new ideas that will help your organization become more diverse, innovative, and responsive. If your hiring managers are recruiting people like themselves - or those who will just fit in - then productivity remains status quo and you can never get ahead.

Ensure that your hiring processes and policies are open to everyone. Provide resources and information to make it easier to hire skilled immigrants. Encourage mentorships. Champion workplace initiatives. And work with community groups to support new immigrants.

And for companies looking to grow markets for their products and services beyond Canada, immigrants bring to you language and cultural skills, knowledge, and networks that can help you reach out to emerging economic giants like China and India.

For the past few years in Toronto, RBC has been working closely with ACCES Employment, a non-profit agency supporting immigrant employment. And I'm pleased to say that in Toronto, RBC has been able to hire a hundred people from ACCES, demonstrating tangible results of simply using a more open and diverse talent pipeline.

Two years ago, RBC launched MOSAIC - an employee resource group that supports newcomers and visible minorities by promoting an inclusive environment for all employees in Canada.

In hiring skilled immigrants, we are ensuring that newcomers to Canada have strong mentors and an inclusive environment to help accelerate their success.

In Halifax, we're proud of the success of the Immigration Works In Halifax campaign — an award-winning print campaign launched by the GHP, RBC and the Halifax Regional Municipality in 2006 to change perception and attitudes of the business community towards hiring an immigrant.

Last August, the GHP, along with support from RBC and Convergys, launched the third phase of the campaign. The objectives of this campaign are the same - to educate business owners on the benefits of hiring immigrants and to shift their attitudes around hiring newcomers. The scope of this campaign is visible in print, billboards, radio, and TV advertising with a solid presence on the web and in social media.

The results speak volumes of the untapped potential in your own neighbourhoods. One year after the launch of the campaign, eight out of 10 companies said they were ready to benefit from hiring immigrants.

We've also thrown our support behind the Employer Support Program, which educates employers on the immigration hiring process, and the Immigration Connector Program, a formalized networking initiative to assist immigrants expand their professional networks.

Tomorrow, the national ALLIES conference begins. ALLIES is an acronym that stands for Assisting Local Leaders with Immigrant Employment Strategies. This is a joint initiative of the Maytree and the JW McConnell Family Foundations that provides funding, technical assistance, information and networks to Canadian cities so they can adapt and implement effective and successful ideas to integrate skilled immigrants into the local labour market.

I mention this only to highlight that there are excellent resources available for companies and communities that want to do a better job of integrating skilled immigrants. I am proud of RBC's accomplishments but they couldn't have happened in a vacuum.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I want to thank you for your invitation tonight and for giving me the opportunity to speak to you about the imperative for companies in Halifax and Nova Scotia to hire more skilled immigrants.

For almost a decade, I've spoken across the country to thousands of people about the need for Canadian companies to embrace diversity. And I'll close tonight by explaining why I care so deeply about this issue.

We have made progress at RBC in leveraging diversity, and while I know there's more work to be done, I feel confident that we're on the right path. But it's not enough.

Canada faces real labour challenges and risks to future economic growth if all of our companies cannot better leverage the skills and talents of people who have come here looking for nothing more than the chance to succeed.

Our country's future prosperity needs everyone - employers, policymakers, community leaders - to do more to integrate the rich knowledge, experience and commitment of skilled immigrants.

I am a proud Canadian, and my experiences working, living and traveling abroad have only deepened that pride.

The strength of our financial system over the past two years, our economic resilience, and even the performance of our athletes in Vancouver 2010, have shown to the world that Canada is again ready to lead.

In different fields of human endeavour Canada is proving itself among the world's best and a place where people want to pursue their dreams. Attracting the best people to build our country and grow your company means being open to a world that is built on principles of inclusion: Valuing people for their talent, their skills, and their perspectives from a background that is different than others.

Diversity drives you to expand the human dimension of business itself - one individual at a time. Personally, I've seen the impact of diversity grow throughout RBC and I urge you all to do what you can in your own organizations to embrace its power to help achieve your business objectives.

Thank you again for your invitation. I wish you all a pleasant evening.