Canadian city of Saskatoon woos Chinese investors after Ottawa snub

Saskatoon hopes to cash in on the talents and assets of wealthy immigrants now that Ottawa has scrapped national investor-visa scheme

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 March, 2014, 5:33am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 March, 2014, 5:33am

Vancouver and Toronto have long been popular with Chinese migrants, but now that a 28-year-old investor visa scheme has been scrapped, a little-known Canadian city is rolling out the welcome mat: Saskatoon.

"We see a large pool of capital but also of talent in Hong Kong and the mainland," said Tim LeClair, head of the Saskatoon Regional Economic Development Authority since 2010.

LeClair left Hong Kong yesterday, headed for Taiwan, after a week-long visit that saw an aggressive push by his team to woo professionals and businesses to Saskatoon, in the oil- and gas-rich province of Saskatchewan in western Canada.

Last month, Canada ended its investor migrant programme, which has allowed tens of thousands of wealthy mainland Chinese and Hongkongers to settle in that country since 1986.

The scheme had been frozen in 2012 because of a backlog of applications. The move to scrap it came days after a South China Morning Post investigation revealed that the Canadian consulate in Hong Kong had been inundated by thousands of applications from mainland Chinese.

The now-defunct scheme saw migrants with a minimum net worth of C$1.6 million (HK$11.3 million) lend the Canadian government C$800,000 interest-free for five years. In return, they and their families got visas with an option to apply for citizenship.

In the last full year of operation, 86 per cent of applicants were mainland Chinese millionaires. An estimated 45,500 Chinese applicants were left in limbo when their applications were "eliminated".

LeClair welcomed the end of the scheme, calling for a more "efficient and effective system" that would tie visas with "specific investment objectives".

"If we are in the business of selling visas, then we are in the wrong business," he said.

Instead, Saskatoon wants to attract foreign investors through the entrepreneur stream of Saskatchewan's immigrant nominee programme, which started in 2007. Applicants need a net worth of C$300,000; there is no loan requirement.

"There's huge interest from mainlanders and it's highly competitive now," LeClair said, adding that more than 1,500 applications for 250 visas had been received last year.

"But it's not just dollars and cents that we want; it's talent. We want immigrant entrepreneurs to have a fighting chance of success, rather than just say, 'Give us the money and come in.'"

LeClair said 85 per cent of applicants came from mainland China and at least 210 of the 250 visas were given to people there.

Saskatoon's population was also growing thanks to Chinese residents moving in from Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal.

"There's real opportunity in Saskatoon, where the GDP [growth] was 6.1 per cent last year," he said. That was the highest in Canada; in Montreal, it was less than 2 per cent in 2013.

LeClair hopes the provincial government will increase the visa quota to 500 to meet growing demand, which he believes will be particularly strong when applications open next month.

Coincidentally, Saskatoon's population is the same as the number of Canadian passport holders in Hong Kong.

"We've got 300,000 Canadians living here, which has been largely an untapped source of talent," LeClair said.

Traditionally, most migrants went into the services and hospitality industries, opening restaurants and hotels. "But we want to push them to use their strengths," he said, citing the example of an engineer putting his skills to work.