The Conference Board of Canada issued a long-term forecast last week that predicts challenging times ahead for Newfoundland and Labrador.
In its most recent forecast on population trends, the board reported that our happy province is going to lose a lot of people. The population is projected to decline from a high of about 527,000 souls down to 482,000 come 2035.
Marie-Christine Bernard, an associate director with the board, says this means much weaker economic prospects over the next 20 years.
“I would say it’s going to be a difficult situation for the province,” she said.
This kind of talk does not sit well with some people, especially those making long-term investments in the province. They see such talk as a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Take the response from former premier Danny Williams, for example. He labelled the Conference Board report “bullshit.”
St. John’s Coun. Tom Hann did much the same thing.
“I don’t know what the methodology was, or how they did the research,” he said, “but I think they are way off-base.”
St. John’s Mayor Dennis O’Keefe agreed, saying, “I think former premier Williams summed it up very well today for the media.”
I have a problem with this dismissive approach. Labelling the report “bullshit” and discounting it because a Toronto-based organization did the work doesn’t make the report wrong. If the numbers deserve to be challenged then we should do so, and the government of Newfoundland and Labrador should take a lead in that, but it is dangerously naive on our part to simply ignore it because a former premier yells BS.
The Conference Board is hardly an amateur outfit. Those who do this work are experts and they don’t make predictions without significant indicators showing them potential outcomes.
They used available information and ongoing trends, both here at home and abroad, to run the kind of comparisons and simulations needed to come to their disturbing conclusions.
Like it or not, our immigration rate is low, our birth rate is low and we are aging faster then any other jurisdiction in the country.
For three years running we have recorded more deaths than births. Our birth rate is now 1.45 per woman — the second lowest in the nation.
Remember that $1,000 bucks-for-babies program that Williams brought us? According to the Conference Board, we saw a small spike in birth rates for a while, but in 2013 they once again fell back below rates recorded before the incentive was introduced.
Statistics Canada demographer Laurent Martel points out that the Canadian population is growing, even without immigration being included. In Canada, we have about 130,000 more births than deaths.
“Newfoundland and Labrador is the only province for which up to now we’ve seen three years of negative natural increase,” he said.
That means more deaths than births.
With a flippant remark, Williams dismisses the report and points to the expanding oil and gas sector as our salvation. No doubt the oil industry will continue to grow and we will rely on it significantly in the near to long term. But we shouldn’t sit on our laurels and ignore the warning sent our way.
Government after government tells us we have to rely more on immigration to increase the population and we have to diversify the economy if we are to maintain “have” status. We always seem to be working on a strategy of one kind or another.
Maybe it’s time to move beyond working on a strategy and start implementing one. What we’re doing now isn’t working well.
Advanced Education and Skills Minister Kevin O’Brien says immigration is netting us up to 700 newcomers a year. Is that success?
The government should take this seriously and put together a working group to either challenge the Conference Board findings or confirm them.
Simply labelling it BS and ignoring it is more disturbing than the actual numbers.
Randy Simms is a political commentator and broadcaster. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org