Canada has reached a new record population: we have more than 35 million people in 2016, up five per cent in just five years according to newly released census figures.
This is the highest growth rate in the G7 group of nations, and two thirds of that growth was attributable to international migration.
Losing more than gained
The Atlantic provinces, however, saw little of that growth, continuing a decades-long population stagnation. Fifty years ago, one in 10 Canadians lived in the Atlantic provinces; now it’s one in 15.
Newfoundland and Labrador’s population did grow between 2011 and 2016, but by only 1 per cent, down from 1.8 per cent recorded between the 2006-11 censuses.
A worsening economic situation will cause young people to leave — unemployment is projected to hit close to 20 per cent by 2019.
Although some of those who leave will return when times are better, in 35 of the last 45 years we have lost more people to other provinces than we have gained.
And this is not the only factor.
Even with a healthy economy, our population would likely continue to fall because of our aging population and our young people choosing to have fewer children.
“A declining, aging population would not be just a blow to our pride.”
Since 2011, the birth rate has fallen below the death rate. This will only get worse.
A declining, aging population would not be just a blow to our pride, it could threaten the future of many of our communities and of the province as a whole.
We need young people with new ideas and sufficient population base to start new businesses, and those with current skills to make those businesses a success.
We need children to ensure that our local schools can stay open, and we need taxpayers to support vital health and other services for our elderly.
Still, there is hope
We can turn this around.
While Atlantic Canada’s population has declined, all three provinces in Western Canada have enjoyed population growth rates higher than the national average, driven largely by immigration.
Alberta has benefited from an oil and gas led boom, but Manitoba, for example, faced some similar challenges to the Atlantic provinces.
“Population grew by 5.8 per cent in the last five years in Manitoba, higher than the Canadian average, mostly driven by international migration.”
It addressed them with aggressive targets for increased immigration and support.
Students who stay in Manitoba and pay taxes now can claim a rebate of 60 per cent of their tuition fees over six years.
As a result of this and other measures, population grew by 5.8 per cent in the last five years in Manitoba, higher than the Canadian average, mostly driven by international migration.
In Newfoundland and Labrador, the government’s Way Forward plan has set a target for 1,700 immigrants to be accepted annually by 2022 — a 50 per cent increase on the 1,122 who arrived in 2015.
“Newfoundland and Labrador could successfully attract and retain many more immigrants than it does now.”
But raising the target by just 500 when we lost 1,400 people to interprovincial migration and 550 to natural population decline in 2015 does not translate the sense of urgency the province requires to address the scale of the problem.
Newfoundland and Labrador could successfully attract and retain many more immigrants than it does now — there are successful Canadian models Newfoundland and Labrador can draw on.
Manitoba’s provincial nominee program provides more extensive support for immigrants. Other provinces are offering visas specifically targeted at entrepreneurs and investors.
And “clustered immigration,” where newcomers from a particular country or region are brought in together to an area, may help them to avoid feelings of isolation when they come to areas without an existing ethnic community.
Taking the long view
Newfoundland and Labrador has great natural beauty, rich resource endowments, friendly and welcoming people with room to grow if it could only find and keep young, skilled workers.
If we act more decisively now to boost immigration, we could follow the example of the western provinces and turn our province around.
We are working to build a research network across the Atlantic provinces to see what can be done to increase immigration, raise awareness of its benefits and help newcomers integrate and stay.
Long term, we are convinced that this is the best way Newfoundland and Labrador and the rest of Atlantic Canada can grow and develop.