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TO THE POINT: Newfoundland and Labrador's poor job of attracting immigrants curtailing economic prosperity

Janice Benwah, who is originally from The Philippines but now calls western Newfoundland home, was among 24 people who officially became Canadian citizens at a swearing-in ceremony held at Corner Brook's city hall Tuesday morning. Another citizenship ceremony will take place there this morning at 10 a.m.
Janice Benwah, who is originally from The Philippines but now calls western Newfoundland home, was among 24 people who officially became Canadian citizens at a swearing-in ceremony held at Corner Brook's city hall in July 2018. -FILE/Gary Kean

N.L. has fewest immigrants in the country

In Canada, the population has grown, on average, about per cent each year for the last 65 years. Seventy percent of population growth in Canada is now attributed to immigration. 

This growth rate has served the country well by providing an ever-growing workforce to allow our economy to expand over time. I’m not sure who first figured out that population growth was good for the economy, but growth at about one per cent has been clearly at the appropriate level to be absorbed without serious disruption to the economy. However, population growth has been virtually entirely restricted to urban communities – or, communities with at least 5,000 or more residents.

Based on the most recent census, only about 19 per cent of Canadians now live in rural communities, although in absolute numbers, the rural population remains about the same as the 1950s. 

The distribution of the population in Atlantic Canada is dramatically different than the rest of the country. In this region, more than twice many Atlantic Canadians live in rural communities as the Canadian average – including 41 per cent In Newfoundland and Labrador.The negative economic impacts of this higher proportion rural residents are two-fold. It limits economic opportunities available to those living in rural communities in the region and, as a consequence, makes rural Newfoundlanders more likely to be dependent on seasonal work. Chronic under-employment and unemployment is a drag on the region’s economy and increases the resources needed to support those living in rural communities. 

Secondly, the cost of public service delivery is generally higher for provinces with higher rural populations. Think about the challenges associated with providing high-speed internet to rural communities as an example.

There is no question: Atlantic Canadians must become more open to newcomers from other countries and become more welcoming to ensure retention of these new citizens.

Atlantic Canada’s lack of population growth traces back to the 1990s, when the baby boom generation stopped having children. Up until then, this region had largely relied on natural birth rates to increase population. For far too long, Atlantic Canada has not had its share of immigration to help grow the population. In Newfoundland, the population following the collapse of the cod fishery declined sharply and has not yet recovered. There is some evidence that the province has also been losing population over the past year or so due to uncertain economic conditions.

According to the most recent census, the population in this region is significantly less diverse than elsewhere in Canada. This creates a challenge: Atlantic Canada remains the least diversified population in Canada due to low levels of immigration to the region over decades. In fact, while 22 per cent of Canadians today were born in another country, only 2.4 per cent of the population in Newfoundland and Labrador were born elsewhere. In fact, the province has the lowest percentage of immigrant population in the country. While the provincial government recently released its long-awaited immigration strategy, there has been little progress to date to address the population issue in the province.

The low incidence of population diversity in the province - particularly outside St. John’s - is a key barrier to the acceptance of those from other countries with different languages and other cultures. This is largely because the region has little experience living with diversity. This is reflected in data collected by Corporate Research Associates Inc. that indicates the majority of Atlantic Canadians believe that the region would be better off by having fewer - or the same small number - of immigrants that are currently being attracted to the region.

The importance and benefit of a growing population is best illustrated by the experience of Prince Edward Island. The Island has out-performed the rest of the region over the last 10 years economically, growing its economy at nearly the Canadian average for real GDP growth, and out-performing the rest of the region by more than one per cent each year in economic growth. It has created more full-time jobs than the rest of the region combined over this period. Its unemployment rate has dropped to its lowest level in decades. The difference in economic performance is directly tied to a consistently growing population driven largely by immigration. P.E.I. is the model for the benefits associated with both population growth and immigration.

There is no question: Atlantic Canadians must become more open to newcomers from other countries and become more welcoming to ensure retention of these new citizens.

One of the challenges related to growing the population is related to the retention of immigrants and attracting immigrants to communities outside major urban centres. Nearly all the population growth in Canada has been limited to the major cities in Canada. Each urban community must develop its own population growth strategy focused on immigrant attraction and retention. Special efforts are required to ensure citizens are informed about the benefits of population growth and immigration as a key strategy to grow the economy, as well as the importance of being more welcoming and accepting of diversity. 

In my opinion, Atlantic Canada must strive to grow its population by one per cent each year to reap the economic benefits the rest of the country has enjoyed for decades.

Don Mills is the former owner of Corporate Research Associates and a recognized expert in data trends in Atlantic Canada. After selling his business recently, he remains passionate about data - and learning the guitar. He can be contacted at dmillshfx@gmail.com or on Twitter at @donmillshfx

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