N.L. preparing to welcome planeload of 175 Ukrainian refugees

A plane chartered by the Newfoundland and Labrador government is scheduled to bring roughly 175 Ukrainian refugees to the provincial capital on Monday, and officials hope those on board will stay.

Everyone scheduled to make the journey has a place to stay when they arrive thanks to the efforts of government workers and everyday citizens in the province and on the ground in Poland, provincial Immigration Minister Gerry Byrne said in an interview Wednesday.

"Those Ukrainians that will be coming on the plane to St. John's know exactly where they're going; they know the supports that will be available to them," Byrne said. "They've made a very conscientious decision to come to Newfoundland and Labrador."

The provincial government has been working hard to get Ukrainians fleeing Russia's attack on their country to resettle in Canada's easternmost province. It even sent four people from its immigration office to Warsaw, Poland, in March to establish a satellite office. They're still on-site, meeting with Ukrainians and distributing flyers about Newfoundland and Labrador peppered with bright pictures of St. John's row houses.

As of Wednesday, the Warsaw office had been in contact with more than 300 Ukrainians who are either in the process of relocating to the province or are seriously considering it, Byrne said.

Of the province's 521,500 residents, approximately 1,400 identify as being of Ukrainian descent, Byrne has said.

The province is also home to Canada's oldest and most rapidly aging population. To compensate, the province is aiming to attract 5,100 newcomers each year by 2026. Ukrainians will play as much of a role in meeting those targets "as any other refugee," Byrne said Wednesday.

Michael Holden sees a real opportunity for rural Newfoundland and Labrador to attract Ukrainians who love the wilderness and seek a quiet, seaside lifestyle. Holden lives in St. John's, where he administers a 2,000-member Facebook group dedicated to helping Ukrainians find jobs and places to live in Newfoundland and Labrador. He's worked in the tourism industry for about two decades.

"Rural communities need immigrants," he said in an interview Wednesday. "And the more that we can attract Ukrainians to live there, the better we're we're all going to be."

Holden said he was impressed by the government's efforts, but when he first looked on Facebook for information, he mostly found people from away badmouthing the province to interested Ukrainians.

"There was a lot of, you know, 'There's no jobs and the economy is really weak, the province is nearly bankrupt ... it has the worst weather in Canada,"' he said. His group is now full of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians offering their houses, basements or couches, as well as job leads. It's also increasingly full of Ukrainians asking for more information and connecting with those offering help.

Mary Brown's Chicken, a Newfoundland-born fried chicken chain, is also part of the effort. The company is offering a job, $3,000 and a flight -- if necessary -- to any Ukrainians who agree to work for the company when they land in Canada.

Darren Durdle, the company's corporate district manager in St. John's, says there are no strings attached. "They could work for us for one day or three years, and we're OK with that," he said in an interview Wednesday. Those interested are interviewed before they come to Canada, and Durdle said they need "a certain level of English" to qualify.

Durdle said the company has offered jobs in Newfoundland and Labrador to three Ukrainians currently in or near Poland, and one of them will be on the plane landing on Monday in St. John's.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 4, 2022.