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Future planning

Harris Centre's RAnLab analytics helping N.L. prepare for tomorrow

By Cathy Newhook and Dr. Mandy Rowsell

As a relatively small place, with relatively few people, data that paints an accurate picture of Newfoundland and Labrador is often hard to come by.

But finding that data – and interpreting its meaning and putting it in the hands of the right people – is exactly what the Harris Centre’s Regional Analytics Lab (RAnLab) is designed to do.

RAnLab emerged out of necessity about 10 years ago. Established by Dr. Alvin Simms and Jamie Ward, in collaboration with Dr. David Freshwater and the Harris Centre’s director, Dr. Rob Greenwood, the group recognized that the province was in need of demographic and labour market information that recognized the specific regional nature of the province.

Although the province was coming out of an unprecedented economic boom at the time, Newfoundland and Labrador was also facing a declining and aging population and increasing urbanization. It was critical for people in the province to be presented with a clear and accurate, if not always pretty, picture of the province’s future demographic reality in order to start moving towards solutions.

The Population Project

One of the biggest projects the group undertook was a projection of the province’s demographics, as part of the Harris Centre’s Population Project.

The work conducted by RAnLab projected the demographic breakdown of the province, looking at birth and death rates, along with historical migration patterns and gave Newfoundlanders and Labradorians the information essential to develop strategies and produce further research that can benefit the future of the province.

RAnLab graph of Roddickton
A graph from the Regional Population Projections for Newfoundland and Labrador, 2016-36, report by Alvin Simms and Jamie Ward.

“What RAnLab is doing is not being done anywhere else,” said Jamie Ward, manager of RAnLab.

“We look more closely, more locally and we try to use more detail: not just regionally, or geographically, but in terms of the variables, like age, education level, and so on. This project gives local people a tool box to empower them.”

Jamie Ward, RAnLab
The RAnLab’s Jamie Ward at Signal Hill Campus.
Photo: Cathy Newhook

Mr. Ward believes that it can be easy for people to ignore statistical reports when they are provided at a high level.

However, he says that statistics are harder to disregard when they exist at the local level.

“Statistics won’t resonate with you if you don’t see yourself in those broad models. But, our project resonates because it is for you. It’s for your area. So it has forced people to take action.”

This resonance can be seen in how people reacted to the population projections when they were first released. The report was covered extensively by local media and even garnered some national attention. Perhaps more significantly, it became a topic that people discussed in their homes and communities.

Rural communities take charge

Four years after the report was published, communities and regions continue to discuss the report and use its findings to motivate change and support good policy decisions.

Roddickton, NL
Roddickton, N.L.
Photo: Submitted

One of these regions is Roddickton-Bide Arm, on the Great Northern Peninsula.

The report projected the region’s population would move from 11,290 to 6,761 (or about 40 per cent) by 2036. This information was a “wake-up call” for Roddickton-Bide Arm mayor, Sheila Fitzgerald.

Sheila Fitzgerald, mayor of Roddickton-Bide Arm
Mayor Sheila Fitzgerald
Photo: Submitted by Sheila Fitzgerald

“From 2013, when I took office, until this report came out in 2016, I was acting in my own little bubble,” said Mayor Fitzgerald. “I was thinking about the needs of my town, only. But that report, which was initially very shocking, made me realize that we’re not alone. It’s not just about us anymore — it’s the entire tip of the Northern Peninsula.”

Mayor Fitzgerald says that her focus changed, as did the focus of many neighbouring communities’ leaders.

“If [the nearby community of] Conch can keep its fish plant, [we here in] Roddickton benefit,” she said.

“So now we’re reaching out to minsters, applying for grants, writing letters not only for businesses here in our community, but for the fish plant in our neighbouring community. Before it was: ‘Take care of your own.’ Now, we’re coming together as a region.”

Moving forward

The demographic information provided by RAnLab allows for and encourages exploration into a number of different issues that will face Newfoundlanders and Labradorians in the coming years.

Things like labour market demands, service provision and governance will all be impacted by the declining and rapidly aging population of the province. Since the initial report was released in 2016, many other research projects were initiated and completed surrounding these topics.

You can read about these on the Harris Centre website.

St. Anthony Workshop
Community leaders and Memorial researchers discuss regional concerns at a workshop in St. Anthony on the Great Northern Peninsula.
Photo: Pamela Gill

“Now there is something tangible that researchers can use,” said Mr. Ward.

“Before, they had to do their own population modelling before even beginning their own research, and this might not be their area of expertise. So, as a utility, this opens up many areas of research. If we have our way, it will continue to do so.”

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