The experiences of immigrant entrepreneurs in a medium-sized Canadian city: The case of St. Johnʼs, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada

Lay Summary 

Encouraging immigrant businesses is a pressing imperative for Atlantic Canada’s small and medium‐sized cities, which struggle with economic diversification, youth out‐migration, and difficulty attracting and retaining newcomers. This study examines the experiences of immigrant entrepreneurs in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador through 28 in-depth interviews with business owners and key informants about the opportunities and challenges of St. John’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. As a peripheral city with a small immigrant population and an economy intimately tied to booms and busts in global oil markets, St. John’s presents a distinct set of challenges for immigrant entrepreneurs. Yet, a recent rush to encourage start-ups—through a university-based incubator program, and new provincial nominee streams—is also creating new opportunities for self-employment and shifting the terrain of support towards white-collar businesses.

“Recognizing that there is not a single uniform immigrant entrepreneur experience is increasingly important for governments and service providers. Immigrant entrepreneurs in St. John’s work in white‐collar and services and distribution sectors. There is not one path towards immigrant entrepreneurship, but many. Immigrant entrepreneurs in St. John’s, for example, are former refugees, international students, and the spouses of provincial nominees. Importantly, as our study highlights, the opportunity structure is not equal across these pathways, as immigrant entrepreneurs have varying levels of access to support systems and start‐up funding.”

Key findings
• Recent additions to NL’s Provincial Nominee Program (NLPNP), the International Graduate Entrepreneur and International Entrepreneur streams, have created new paths to immigrant entrepreneurship.
• Memorial University (MUN) is acting as an entrepreneurial funnel for international and domestic students into the local start-up ecosystem in St. John’s. These entrepreneurs reported knowledge of available support services and ample networking opportunities.
• Immigrant entrepreneurs in the white-collar sector (i.e., computer systems design, management, scientific and technical consulting services, scientific research and development, and advertising) reported a well-resourced startup environment where local supports such as the Genesis Centre (a MUN-hosted business incubator) offer access to crucial social and economic capital.
• Organizations like the St. John’s Farmers’ Market operate as key platforms where newcomers in the services and distribution sectors (i.e., food, retail) can establish communities and also alter the entrepreneurial opportunity structure through innovations which expose the broader population to new products.


• High shipping and rental costs, along with geographic isolation and a tightly bound local community are barriers for entrepreneurs operating retail shops and restaurants.
• Immigrant entrepreneurs in the white-collar sector reported difficulties finding enough qualified workers locally to grow their businesses. This limitation encouraged some businesses to outsource or move operations to larger cities like Montreal and Toronto.
• Across sectors, immigrant entrepreneurs in our study voiced frustration that their contributions often go unrecognized by the City of St. John’s and the provincial government. Study participants did not feel as though NL represents or recognizes cultural diversity or the local level contributions that newcomers make.
• Immigrant entrepreneurs without access to MUN’s resources and networks reported a lack of knowledge of available resources and frustration in NL not having an in-person immigration office. Some entrepreneurs were also unable to access some local level services because of their immigration status.

Policy implications

1. Immigrant entrepreneurs, even in a city with a small immigrant population like St. John’s, are a diverse group, with diverse experiences and needs. Entrepreneurial behaviour is not only exhibited by the principle applicant immigrants who arrive in NL via officially designated “entrepreneurial” streams of the NLPNP. There is a need for greater attention to the range of supports immigrant entrepreneurs need to be successful in small and medium-sized Canadian cities.
2. There is a clear relationship between immigration, higher education, and entrepreneurial behaviour in St. John’s. MUN and its 3,200 international students are crucial to economic diversification and population growth. This study cautions against further financial cuts to higher education in the province.
3. In the rush to encourage white-collar “start-ups,” it is essential that available services and resources do not ignore immigrant entrepreneurs operating in NL’s services and distribution sector. These restaurants and retail shops hire local, rent local, shop local and are vital to NL’s local and tourism economy.
View the full article at The Canadian Geographer:
Read the full MA thesis via MUN library:

SSHRC Insight Development Grant 430-2016-0009
Master's Canada Graduate Scholarship 766-2018-0827
St. John's
Newfoundland and Labrador
Industry Sectors 
Professional, Scientific and Technical Services
Accommodation and Food Services
Retail Trade
Start date 
1 May 2018
End date 
1 Jun 2020