Census figures reflect provinces decline, especially in rural areas

Lana
Lana Payne
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Provincial government politicians let out a huge, gushing sigh of relief last week at the release of the 2006 Census.

The population decline was not nearly as bad as some had predicted. And whenever the bad news is not as bad as previously billed, it ends up being good news or at least thats the way it gets spun.

There is no subject as touchy for a government in this province as outmigration and population decline except perhaps to be guilty of another resource giveaway.

But perhaps they shouldnt be too relieved.

While the overall population dropped 1.5 per cent, rural communities were not that fortunate. They faced much larger population declines. Marystown, for example, saw an eight per cent drop in citizens since 2001, while St. Anthonys numbers were down a considerable 12 per cent.

The official line from the Williams administration was that the Census data is off and the population is not really as low as 505,469, but rather around 509,000 people still a drop from 2001.

But the issue is not to quibble over a percentage point or two. It is the trends that are of concern.

Those trends are that rural communities continue to struggle and our overall population has been declining since 1986, more especially since 1991 when 568,474 souls lived along our highway and rocky shorelines. Today, there are about 63,000 fewer people who call Newfoundland and Labrador home.

The bulk of this population erosion happened during the 1990s when our province suffered the biggest economic hit in its history the closure of a number of groundfisheries, including the great northern cod fishery.

The province is still feeling the hangover from these fisheries closures, as coastal towns struggle to just survive and as a scarcity of jobs force more and more young and old people to leave for greener pastures or, in this case, the Alberta oil sands.

And thats really what our population woes ultimately come down to a lack of well-paying jobs.

Arguably, the population decline would have been greater were it not for the Fort McMurray express. The long-distance worker is quickly becoming as much a part of our landscape as the premiers sky-high popularity numbers but is either a really good thing for society?

Likely, the mobile workforce members are included in the population count, as they technically still live here, pay taxes here and return home every six weeks for two or three weeks at a time.

But how much living are they actually doing here? And does anyone really care about that as long as the paycheques come back with them?

Both the declining population and transient-worker phenomena have important policy implications for governments. How do you provide adequate services to small populations? How do families and communities cope?

Given the national trend towards urbanization, with 68 per cent of Canadas population living in 33 cities, and the vast majority of these folks living in just six very large cities Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Ottawa, Calgary and Edmonton you have to wonder how much attention rural Canada will get from federal policy- and decision-makers.

And in that respect, Newfoundland and Labrador is still bucking the trend. Nationally, just 17 per cent of Canadians live in rural areas, while nearly 45 per cent of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians do.

This means rural policy and rural issues are still very much a matter of concern or should be for provincial politicians, but may not be in the larger, federal scheme of things.

The growing trend towards working somewhere else and living here part-time is having, and will continue to have, a serious impact on communities, especially smaller towns and outports. And what of the implications for families, especially women? And the local volunteer base?

Lets face it, the more services are regionalized a recognized necessity by most the more costly it will be to live in rural Newfoundland and Labrador. When people live in these communities 52 weeks of the year, they find ways to make do, but that, too, is becoming increasingly difficult, as there are fewer and fewer people to do the work of maintaining a community.

There are two schools of thought regarding this rural dilemma: those who would leave the future of rural Newfoundland and Labrador to the marketplace in other words, do nothing and those who believe coastal communities deserve a fighting chance.

For now, provincial politicians have to pay attention to rural society or face the consequences. While the rural population may be declining, rural political clout is not at least not yet. The question is, can rural society rally to effectively use its influence, or will it fall victim to the age-old tactic of divide and conquer?



Lana Payne is a former journalist who is active in the labour movement.

Her column returns April 1.

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Marystown, Alberta Fort McMurray Toronto Montreal Vancouver Ottawa Calgary Edmonton Canada

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