Strong wind whips across the water in Arichat, an area in the south east of Cape Breton Island. Small whitecaps dot the bay beside a boatyard filled with various hulls, from fishing boats to pontoon boats to a Coast Guard vessel. Winter sun filters through grey puffy clouds above, now and then offering a few moments of light. The boats stand motionless against the chilled breeze as it wraps around the shops at Samson Enterprises. It's usually windy here.
Inside the buildings at Samson, employees of the dynamic boatbuilding company complete many tasks in each step of building and maintaining the vessels under Samson's care. Building boats is a Nova Scotian tradition, practiced for hundreds of years. But it's not only for Nova Scotians. People from far and wide are joining the tradition and getting involved in the industry. They learn the skills a boatbuilder labourer must practice as well as a new culture, language and lifestyle as new Canadians.
In 2020 Rickey Lanting was living in the Philippines, working as a Customer Service Representative in an office. His sister was already living in the Canadian Maritimes, and shared a work opportunity with him: A company in Cape Breton was hiring. "She saw some ad that Samson is hiring for boatbuilders," recalls Rickey, "I said, 'I don't have experience of building boats,' but according to the ad, no experience required and training would be done here."
The idea to hire immigrants at Samson came a little while ago. "It's probably been since 2017 that we've been working towards bringing in foreign workers to bridge that labour gap," says Rachelle Samson, HR manager and accountant for Samson Enterprises.
Hiring foreign workers was "very complicated in the beginning," she adds.
Samson posted jobs on Indeed, the government job bank, the Nova Scotia job bank, and advertised on radio and TV. An employer is required to advertise a job for 4 weeks to qualify for government immigration programs for workers. A handful of applicants got in touch and the process began.
It took around twelve to eighteen months before the first immigrant worker arrived. "We weren't really sure of the processing times at the time, but it was a slow battle," says Rachelle, "and then, of course, their work permits are only good for a year, so the game became trying to stay on top of their paperwork while they qualified for permanent residency."
By far the largest amount of work is filling out and filing the paperwork, for both the employer and the new hire. But Samson had found a way to fill positions. They continue to hire through immigration, adjusting workload in the office.
"Every year it turns into a project that I have to let go of all my other duties in the office and focus on that one task," says Rachelle, "you have to be very meticulous. Where it's government, you don't really get a second chance." It can take about 2 weeks to complete and submit. Then there's orientation for new hires.
The first round of hiring brought 3 new employees.
"So," says Rickey, sitting in the lunch room at Samson Enterprises, "I ended up coming here."
Even with a warning about wicked winter weather from Rickey's family in Canada, he was caught off-guard. His plane landed in Toronto mid-February. "I had my jackets, but it's not enough. I'm from a tropical country," he says, smiling, "I was waiting at the airport. I just had my very thin jacket. Fortunately there were people I met there, they were Filipinos too, so they gave me their jacket, and for that I am very thankful."
Rickey's new place to stay in Cape Breton quickly began to feel like home. Samson got in touch with a YMCA in Port Hawkesbury, near Arichat. They provided connections and advice to increase Samson's chances of success. "There was a small Filipino community in Port Hawkesbury, and we got in touch with them and introduced them right away," says Rachelle, "so that they still had a piece of home and people to talk to who had already been here for some time." Within a month of arriving, Rickey was living in Port Hawkesbury.
On-the-job training was a little more involved than usual, but Samson was making an investment. When on-ramping a new employee, "we have just put our managers on the ground with them, one by one, and spent lots of time with them," explains Rachelle, "and coached them into the process."
Boatbuilding was new to Rickey. "I never had an experience like handling tools," he says, "so when I came here, people were telling me I can't do this...but then with the help of other people I get to learn everything."
The kindness of his coworkers turned it into a job he enjoys very much. "It's not only the work but the people that you are working with," he says, "that's actually one of the main reasons why people stay in a company. It's not the compensation or the salary, it's actually the environment that will make you stay."
Now, four or five years into the job, Rickey is feeling pride in his work. In the office, he would get bored sometimes sitting on a computer or making phone calls. Now he likes the hands-on jobs in an industry that's different every day. "[I like] grinding, smoothing all the surfaces and then cutting all the parts that we did," he says, "that's my favourite part of the day. Some people will tell me I'm crazy because those are the dirty jobs. But for me, I enjoy it because I'm just alone with myself. You're there, at your own pace."
He's come a long way and is happy to keep building his skill set. "I started from glassing...now, since we are finishing some of our boats here, I'm learning how to paint."
Samson now has two permanent residents and 8 seasonal employees hired through immigration. "We brought in a few permanent and then we found the seasonal portion of it, which helped us really cover our winter months, when everyone wants their boats made," says Rachelle, "and then released that pressure in the summer to keep that amount of work for that amount of workers. The seasonal program really kind of found the balance for us."
According to Nova Scotia's Minister of Labour, Skills and Immigration, a record 12,650 new permanent residents moved to the province in 2022. Hiring through immigration is "common and uncommon at the same time," says Rohan Christian, Diversity and Inclusion Coordinator for the NSBA. There are two basic ways to hire immigrants, and it depends on whether they are already in Canada or not: "People who are already here, they are inland applicants. Maybe on a temporary visa, temporary work permit, or a visitor's visa that can be converted into temporary work permit and then permanent residency," he says, "outland applicants are the ones who are outside Canada, who want to get a job and will require an offer letter. So employers like Rachelle will provide one and then they can get a temporary work permit, which can then be converted into permanent residency [after a certain amount of time]." Rickey Lanting was hired through the Atlantic Immigration Program, designed to help bring skilled labour into wanting workplaces.
The process of hiring through immigration can be daunting, but there are supports available. Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), the Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia (ISANS), the YMCA, the Nova Scotia Nominee Program (NSNP), and the Newcomer's Guide to Halifax Immigration and Settlement page are all sources of help. Immigration news can be found at CIC News.
Housing is a question that inevitably comes up. Inland applicants may have a place to live already, but outland applicants will need to find somewhere to stay. As part of their investment Samson bought two local houses and converted them to apartments if newcomers had trouble finding a home.
If you are interested in learning more about the process of hiring through immigration, there are consulting firms that specialize in the process (Registered Canadian Immigration Consultants, or RCIC's). The NSBA's own Rohan Christian, who went through the immigration process himself in 2016, is available to any NSBA members who would like help with the paperwork or any other step. "If they want to attempt," he says, "I can be someone who will be with them through the process."
In the past Rickey lived in Bahrain for more than 7 years, so he's used to different cultures and people. He's explored Canada a bit, but his favourite place is Cape Breton. "This is a place where I can explore and drive," he says, "you can travel the whole island in one full day, and you get to explore everything here. I like the [Cape Breton] Highlands."
For others thinking of immigrating, Rickey says "this is one of the best countries to migrate because they are very good health care-wise, and because of the way they embrace newcomers." The process of immigrating like Rickey should take around six months, if all the documentation is done properly. "If you're planning to stay and having permanent residency," he recommends, "the first thing that I think they should prepare is the English test and their educational assessment."
If everything works out, you might find a new home and a good job.
"I am from a city, so if you're tired of the hustle and bustle of a big city," he says, "I can tell you, Nova Scotia, particularly Cape Breton...They can choose this place if they're thinking of a very laid-back community."
As he travels around Cape Breton, sometimes Rickey sees a boat on the water. In his old life he might not think twice. Now, he takes a closer look: "Driving along near the shore, if you can see some boats, sometimes you're looking at it like, 'I think that's our boat, I think that's Samson's boat,'" he says, smiling, "and I'm thinking, 'if I'm not mistaken, I think I'm the person who did that.' So, it's being proud of yourself."
After his lunchtime chat with the NSBA, Rickey puts on his respirator and heads back to the shop floor. Outside, sunlight breaks through the clouds and for a moment the breeze drops. A hint of spring. The the cloud cover returns and the wind picks back up, flowing around the hulls in the boatyard. Work continues at Samson Enterprises in Arichat, Nova Scotia.