HALIFAX -- Nova Scotia must jettison its "come from away" attitude that views immigrants as outsiders if it wants to attract newcomers to grow the province's population and economy, the head of a Halifax immigrant-settlement agency says.
"There are many in Nova Scotia for whom 'come from away' and 'who's your father' is still a common and familiar part of the vernacular," Gerry Mills, executive director of the Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia, said Tuesday during a panel discussion in Halifax.
"There are still people here that are suspicious of immigrants and suspicious of immigration."
The small-town slight -- to call someone a "come from away," or CFA -- is a linguistic glimpse into the apprehensive attitude among some Atlantic Canadians toward newcomers.
"Those words, come from away, they're all four-letter words," Mills said. "We just shouldn't use them."
Nova Scotia senior federal cabinet minister Scott Brison provoked debate last year by suggesting the phrase should be banned from the Atlantic Canadian vocabulary.
"It's in our collective interest, economically and socially, to not use terms that reflect a negative view of people who choose to make Atlantic Canada their home," he said.
But it's not just the phrase "come from away" that reveals Nova Scotia's mindset.
Former premier Darrell Dexter said one of the first questions people ask in Nova Scotia is "who's your father," especially in rural areas.
He said there is a tension between what he called a "clannishness" that exists in Nova Scotia and the need for newcomers to fix the region's demographic crunch -- a rapidly aging population, a low birth rate and youth outmigration.
"It's been a difficult process but progress has been made in Nova Scotia," Dexter said. "We're starting to see more services delivered that fundamentally improve the opportunities for immigrants to not only come to Nova Scotia but to stay here."
Although slow to change, Nova Scotians rallied together to welcome Syrian refugees to the province.
For example, the Hadhad family settled in Antigonish and with the support of locals opened the successful chocolate factory Peace by Chocolate.
Mills said Nova Scotians displayed an openness to Syrian refugees that she hopes it's a sign of changing times.
Meanwhile, Mills told a panel discussion at Halifax's MacEachen Institute Tuesday that some employers in the province only want to hire people they went to school with or who live down the road, and are reluctant to consider hiring an immigrant from overseas.
"I think there is still some reticence and some fear about the different, especially if you're in rural communities where there are very few immigrants," she told an audience at Dalhousie University. "Nova Scotia employers like people who they know. But things are changing. Employers are now hurting. They can't grow their business."
Companies hamstrung by a lack of skilled workers in the region are starting to consider hiring a newcomer, Mills said, in part through a new immigration pilot program designed to fill gaps in the labour force.
Last year, Atlantic premiers announced the details of the program created to boost the region's flagging economy by ensuring newcomers don't join the steady stream of outmigration to other parts of the country.
It's intended to help Atlantic businesses attract international graduates and skilled foreign workers to fill job vacancies.