For more than a year, there’s been an image file sitting on my office computer desktop — a bar graph from the 2016 auditor general’s report.
In 2008, the graph shows offshore oil revenue jumping massively, and I annotated it with a little red arrow, labelled “James moves to Newfoundland.”
In 2016, oil royalties crashed, and the bar graph is annotated with another arrow: “James starts considering other options.”
Later this month, I’ll board the Marine Atlantic ferry at Port aux Basques and head home to Toronto. I’ll be leaving a piece of my heart in Newfoundland and Labrador.
The province has been good to me.
I grew up as a journalist here, and my work here has allowed me to experience incredible things.
And on my days off, my idea of perfect happiness is hiking the East Coast Trail with a friend on a sunny summer morning, or maybe skating on The Loop in Bannerman Park with my girlfriend, bundled up on a cold, dark December night.
I’ll be back to visit, and I hope I’ll always be a friend to Newfoundland and Labrador.
But sometimes, friends need to be honest, even when it’s uncomfortable and hard to talk about.
Here’s the honest truth: it’s in the economic self-interest of every man, woman and child in this province to do the same thing I’m doing: pack up and move literally anywhere else.
The province has a demographic problem and a geographic problem.
There are too many old people who need expensive health care, and because of cod moratorium out-migration, there aren’t enough working-age people left behind to pay taxes to cover the costs.
People here already lead the country in diabetes, obesity and heart disease, and it costs us $3.1 billion annually to care for the sickly population.
We have people living in St. Brendan’s and Black Tickle, Belleoram and Bell Island, and they all expect paved roads and staffed health clinics.
People here already pay some of the highest taxes in the country, and because of the demographics and geography, we have poorer schools, poorer hospitals and poorer roads to show for it.
And then we can throw an economy-killing boondoggle of an energy project into the mix. To avoid total economic calamity, the government will need to use tax dollars to subsidize electricity rates, which will only drive taxes even higher or rob money from social programs.
This is the current reality, which politicians are loath to fully acknowledge, because it’s awfully bleak. (And as an aside, do you feel like the current crop of politicians is up to the challenge? And if not, how much worse will things be if they fail to manage this economic mess?)
Unless there’s a federal bailout, it’ll only be Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who pay for Muskrat Falls. And even if there’s a bailout, it’ll only be enough to keep the province solvent, and it’ll almost certainly come with painful strings attached.
And even if you’re personally insulated from the worst of it, you can’t escape it. Even if you’re a doctor or a lawyer or a university professor, even if you’re on the Sunshine List, you still have to live here. You still have to get in your car in the morning drive over potholes as you listen to news stories about people who are suffering, with no way to help them because we simply can’t afford it.
You can’t escape the depressing reality of societal poverty, even if you can personally afford to heat your house and put food in your fridge.
So that’s the honest, painful reality, and denial masquerading as optimism won’t do anything to make things better.
I’ve made my choice.
Some of it is personal reasons, and some of it is career opportunities, but a big part of my decision is knowing that these problems are out there and not wanting to stick around and experience the pain first-hand.
I know most of the people here won’t join me.
There are people here who are as rooted as the tuckamores on the East Coast Trail. And I can’t blame them.
Newfoundland and Labrador is magic, and in its best moments, it’s beautiful, whimsical, primal and profound. The sense of nationalist identity beats in the hearts of so many people here, and leaving would be a little bit of treason.
I don’t have any answers for those people. They’re destined to endure the painful realities of living here, or suffer the painful longing that comes with moving away.
I don’t have any answers for how to fix the problems of this place, and even if I did, I don’t know if anybody would want to hear it from a turncoat Torontonian who was just visiting for a few years.
All I really know, from covering N.L. politics full-time for the past eight years, is that you can’t fix something without first knowing what’s broken.