N.L. population issues ‘getting to a crisis point’

Strategy for population growth well past its due date

Ashley Fitzpatrick afitzpatrick@thetelegram.com
Published on June 5, 2015
Keith Gosse/The Telegram
The provincial population growth strategy was supposed to figure out a way to reverse the declining population and bring more young families in. But it’s long overdue, leaving some families holding off on having more children until there are more supports for parents in the province.

The province’s population growth strategy has been in development for over two years. In the interim, Allison Doyle had a baby.

There was a lot to think about, she said. A great deal of the thinking, before the June 2013 birth of her son, was related to personal finances.

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At age 31, she said she and her husband are holding off from having a second child, at least in part due to a need for more supports for would-be parents in this province.

Governments have issued various incentives aimed at growing young families, but Doyle said there are still challenges, particularly if the government wants to jump-start local birth rates.

“The government is pushing: have more kids, have more kids, have more kids. But middle-class people my age have all of this debt from student loans, housing prices — through the roof right now,” she said, adding time is a consideration in changing the status quo.

“We’re on a time crunch. We, generally as a female, have a timeline to have kids,” she said.

The population growth strategy is promised to go beyond birth rates, to also address community sustainability, youth retention and immigration.

It is a cross-departmental effort. But it’s just not ready yet.

“I really think it comes down to ‘short-term-ism’ and looking at the immediate needs,” said Nancy Healey, CEO of the St. John’s Board of Trade, criticizing the delay and calling for the strategy to be released.

“Growing a population — this is something, I guess, you can say has been creeping up on us, but now is getting to a crisis point.”

She said population growth is the board’s N0 1 issue.

“In fact, we think it’s the Number 1 threat to business success of our members and all businesses in Newfoundland and Labrador,” she said.

“There’s not a day goes by that a (board of trade) member doesn’t talk to me, lament about the inability to find the talented labour that they want. We have more people set to retire then we have entering the labour force. There’s this grey tsunami coming our way. We have been exporting people out of this province for decades. We have more deaths than we have births, we’ve had a declining birth rate for a very long time and we haven’t had a well established immigration track record over the past number of years. So we have an issue coming our way.”

The province has made some recent headway in its population numbers. However, looking at immigration, it is expecting to lose ground again in the near future, as the tide of workers for construction megaprojects rolls out.

Under middle-of-the-road assumptions, the government’s population projections online show modest net in-migration for now, “but then net out-migration occurs from 2016 to 2018 as several major projects, including the hydromet (processing) facility in Long Harbour, Hebron (oil project), Kami (iron ore development — currently on hold) and the Lower Churchill (hydroelectric development) are completed.”

The predictions then assume a bump for construction related to an offshore oil development in the area of Bay du Nord.

“Net in-migration resumes in 2025 and gradually increases thereafter to fill new jobs that are expected to be created as well as to replace baby boomers as they retire,” it states. “Net in-migration averages roughly 1,800 per year over the entire projection period from 2014 to 2035.”

But the board predicts a need closer to 5,000 people a year, Healey said.

A provincial-level population growth strategy was promised during the 2011 general election. Work was started in 2013, after the government gathered a team to launch into public consultations.

In early 2014, the strategy was promised by Canada Day. When July 2014 came around, then-minister Kevin O’Brien told The Telegram he expected to be able to present it by year’s end.

A request this week for a related interview with current minister Clyde Jackman was declined.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Advanced Education and Skills provided an emailed response to questions, saying the strategy can be expected “in the coming weeks.”

A more specific timeline was then requested. The response: “No there is nothing more specific that can be provided at this point.”

“There’s not a dedicated deputy minister for population growth now,” said a government staffer, while providing an extended accounting of staff changes within the department, during a House of Assembly committee meeting earlier this month on budget figures.

The apparently axed position — the department rep would not later confirm the statement — was created by former premier Kathy Dunderdale and first filled by Ross Reid, who went on to become Dunderdale’s chief of staff.

“Currently, the assistant deputy minister for workforce development and immigration, and the director of the workforce development secretariat are responsible for the population growth strategy,” said the email from the department.

A “what we heard” document, summarizing statistics and findings from the public consultations of 2013, was released in 2014.

The provincial government website still states release of the strategy is anticipated in 2014.

Population Growth, Government of Newfoundland and Labrador

(NOTE: This is an edited version, updated at 10:30 a.m. on June 5, 2015.)