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Things are not so grim these days when it comes to being a young person in the Atlantic provinces. I remember visiting friends in Newfoundland over the years and being told about entire generations lost to moves out West.
Being from Nova Scotia, I’m no stranger to this. It seemed, for a time, that every last soul from my high school or undergraduate university had moved to Alberta. Even this year, looking up old high school classmates I had lost touch with, I realized that nearly all were now living in Ontario, Alberta or British Columbia.
However, things are turning around. Newfoundland is expected to lead the country in economic growth this year and I have friends moving back in droves. Here in my hometown of Halifax, which is in the middle of a modest boom, headlines proudly announced that, for the first time in decades, Halifax has managed to retain its young population and actually see it grow.
The whole region must now ask how can we seize this momentum and bring back our lost generations of young people?
One observation that comes to mind right away is that Atlantic Canada tends to avoid being international in its outlook and in its events. While this may seem like an absurd statement, in light of the enjoyable quality of life protected by our famously locally minded cultures, that has not stopped the region from being overly enamoured with cultural projects and events that court the rest of Canada and not the rest of the world, even at the expense of building a local culture that fosters today’s youth.
I remember visiting friends in Newfoundland over the years and being told about entire generations lost to moves out West.
Newfoundland arguably is the least guilty of this, having inspired a hit musical on Broadway. Meanwhile, Halifax has the stellar Halifax International Security Forum, the only time that I run into people on Canadian soil who I have met in Washington, D.C. — including when I am in Ottawa. The rest of the year, though, we are missing an opportunity that we have, for the first time, the ability to capitalize on.
Atlantic Canada is blessed with world-class institutions of higher education, but many of the speakers and events tend to focus on an insular vision of Canadian politics; not even fostering regional politics, but instead keeping our next generation from having access to the best that the rest of the world has to offer. We are indoctrinating our youth to pine for life out West, and they are doing their highest-level networking with visiting connections from the cities where they move to instead. Why not bring the world to Atlantic Canada instead of bringing Atlantic Canada to Ontario, where the world is?
At least for my friends and I, Atlantic Canadian cities are a far more desirable place to live than unfriendly bigger cities out West, but Atlantic Canada can't compete with the vast networking and co-working opportunities available with the population of Toronto or Montreal.
Or can we?
Perhaps the issue can be solved by looking at where we did succeed: our arguably more successful local music scene. Instead of working on replicating Canada’s biggest cities with a smaller, cheaper version of the same networking and co-working concepts, why not host more events that bring in high-level international visitors and international recognition? That way, we end up with well-connected local youth whose skills and connections rival those of their counterparts in other cities, much like we rival those cities with our enviable cultures.
Now is the time for Atlantic Canada to fulfil its promise to its youth. Are we planning to spend the coming years telling them how much better it is out West and filling their pockets with business cards from places they never return from? Or are we going to give our youth the opportunity to have the same quality of life here at home?
Jay Heisler is a freelance journalist published with CNBC and is working on a book contract for the Association of the United States Army and Naval Institute Press. He is a longtime staffer with Washington, D.C.-based Young Professionals in Foreign Policy and works in Halifax for Dalhousie University. Email firstname.lastname@example.org