Protester holding a sign reading “Good Enough To Work, Good Enough To Stay”

Immigration reform protesters in Toronto in 2015. (Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket/Getty)

A recent CBC discussion between Prime Minister Trudeau and “Neil from London, Ontario” have left pundits from Aaron Wherry to Adam Radwanski wondering what, if anything, can the federal government do for London and the rest of the southwestern Ontario rust belt.

Neil, a former 58-year old former manufacturing worker, worried about his future and the future of his city, asked the Prime Minister how prosperity could be brought back to the region. The conversation was rather awkward, and as Wherry described left more questions than answers:

Neil came away unsatisfied with the answers and Trudeau later pleaded that there was only so much a prime minister could do, but all that seems worth discussing. How did Neil from London get to this point and what can be done for him now? Those are worthy questions, perhaps given greater resonance than if an MP or member of the press had merely invoked the idea of someone like Neil.

Radwanski was even more blunt, concluding that:

But there are too many Neils from London for Mr. Trudeau to have had no answer at all. A prime minister who came to office on a wave of optimism needs to find a way to provide a bit of it even to the sorts of hard-hit people who only rarely and fleetingly turn up on Ottawa’s radar.

There is no shortage of these “sorts of hard-hit people,” as manufacturing jobs like Neil’s were killed off in the hundreds of thousands, thanks to a combination of automation, globalization and a petro-fueled escalation of the Canadian dollar’s value, as I describe in Reforging Ontario.

So how do you help out Neil and the rest of London, Ontario? It is a tough problem, because the twin forces of automation and globalization are only escalating and the industrial capacity killed off by the petroloonie is not coming back, even with the recent fall in oil prices. The short answer must lie, in part, in the growth of local companies—particularly startups—to create economic growth and jobs at all skill-levels.

This is where we run into another problem plaguing the Southwestern Ontario rust belt. A necessary condition for a healthy ecosystem of startups and growth companies is a large and growing pool of young talent. But demographic change is working in the other direction. From 2001 to 2014, the population of people 40 or older increased by 47,276. And those under 40? It decreased by 2,454. While this is an issue across Canada, it is less so in large centres. For example, while the Toronto CMA’s over-40 population increased by 858,000, the under-40 crowd also saw an increase of 314,000 persons.

So how can London, Windsor, St. Catharines et. al. increase their population of talented twentysomethings? The region does an excellent job of importing talent as our institutes of higher education are worldwide magnets for young achievers. In London, Western and Fanshawe bring in some of the most gifted students in the world, teach them skills highly in demand in the region while they become familiar with Canadian culture. We then allow these graduates to stay in the country for a period of up to three years via Canada’s Post-Graduation Work Permit Program (PGWPP); tech companies Darren Meister, Kadie Ward and I interviewed in London told me how incredibly valuable these workers are.

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