A former New Brunswick premier says the federal government should consider a program that would require some immigrants to live in Atlantic Canada for three to five years before getting their citizenship.

Frank McKenna says unless the region can build a larger base of new citizens, immigrants will continue to flock to larger centres like Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver.

Frank McKenna Facebook

New Brunswick saw deaths outpace births for the first time in 2014, and McKenna said the rest of the country needs to take note because an aging population costs more, and the declining population base will result in less equalization, fewer transfers for health and education, and less money raised from income tax.

McKenna said Atlantic Canada only gets about 2.5 per cent of immigrants to Canada.

“Immigrants go where immigrants are. They are all going to Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. We have to break that mold somehow and it’s going to take a stiff dose of medicine to do that,” McKenna, who is now deputy chairman of the Toronto-Dominion Bank, said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

He said the federal government should create a special program for Atlantic Canada that would require immigrants to live three to five years in the region before they are granted citizenship.

“During that time it’s up to us as citizens, communities and provinces to keep them here,” McKenna said.

He said forcing a Canadian citizen to live in a particular province would violate their mobility rights under the Constitution, but he said Constitutional scholars believe it would be a reasonable requirement for people seeking citizenship.

New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant said he has already spoken to the new federal government about the aging demographic and will push the issue again when the federal cabinet meets in the province next week.

“Welcoming new Canadians to Atlantic Canada and to New Brunswick specifically is going to be a big part of ensuring we grow the economy,” Gallant said Monday. “Not only that, they add a lot to our culture, they add a lot to our diversity, and those are strengths that I think help any jurisdiction.”

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil said the provinces have a responsibility to work with communities and social groups to create the infrastructure and supports so that immigrants who come to the region will want to stay.

“It won’t happen overnight but it will require a thoughtful plan about making sure we have that social fabric in place as well as a commitment by the national government to recognize that they have a role to play in ensuring that giving provinces some control over the number of people who come in to our respective provinces,” McNeil said.

“We’re living longer and as we’re beginning to age and we begin to consume more health care dollars, we need more, younger people our there driving economic opportunity and job creation.”

McKenna said Toronto’s population and economy is thriving as a result of immigrants who have arrived with an entrepreneurial spirit and a desire to work. He said the same thing can happen in Atlantic Canada once a base of immigrants is created.

“There’s an element of desperation in the way they’ve lived their lives. They have to work, and have to create jobs for their family members,” McKenna said.

“They bring a shock to our society that we badly need.”

The Associated Press/The Canadian Press