Don’t bet on population growth

Newfoundland and Labrador’s population will get smaller and older, but it isn’t the worst of fates

“Live here, work here, belong here”—you may have heard these words uttered during a Youtube ad. They are a slogan of the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador’s Population Growth Strategy, a plan advanced through (in addition to cinematic ads) policies and somewhat vague action plans. The government, given the province’s falling and aging population, is eager to convince people to either move or stay within its borders.

Such an effort seems reasonable. After all, Newfoundland and Labrador’s (NL’s) fertility rate is below replacement levels and many leave the province for elsewhere in Canada. According to the NL Statistics Agency, our population is now declining and is projected to fall from about 527,000 in 2013 to as low as 517,500 in 2019. The population is also growing grey: although our population is much lower than in 1986, the population of age 60 years or older has almost doubled since then.

Although trying to soften the virtually inevitable trends of population aging and decline may be worthwhile, there are good reasons to doubt that NL will grow at the rest of Canada’s rate, or even grow at all. Given this, it is important we recognize that an aging and shrinking population isn’t the worst of possible fates and that we discuss ways to adapt to demographics shifts rather than solely try to reverse them.

Immigration acts as one plank of the provincial government’s strategy. But it is unlikely that immigrants to Canada, who are free to move within the country’s borders, will choose Newfoundland and Labrador as their new home. After all, the province has relatively small immigrant communities, little name recognition outside of Canada compared to cities like Toronto or Vancouver, and a culture that is unique and homegrown but perhaps not cosmopolitan.

Available data suggests NL has trouble in attracting immigrants. The federal government, which administers immigration, allows provinces to nominate potential immigrants. Although NL’s government makes nominations, only 23 per cent of its admitted nominees between 2000 and 2008 continued to live in the province in 2008. The rest moved elsewhere, perhaps to Ontario or British Columbia. This retention rate was the lowest in Canada.

If immigration cannot be counted on to reverse our population decline, then perhaps the province could increase fertility. Doing so, by making children more attractive through daycare programmes or cheques to families with newborns, are expensive and probably implausible given the provincial government’s alarming fiscal situation. Even if we could afford to increase fertility, doing so could be a poor idea because a wave of new births at a time of mass retirement would leave few workers to support many dependents.

Many people born in Newfoundland and Labrador live outside its borders and—along with other Canadians—may consider relocating to the province if promising opportunities appear. But the fact that the pervasive economic boom of the last ten years has reversed itself stands to weaken our ability to attract other Canadians. The Population Growth Strategy recognizes this, attributing recent net in-migration to economic strength and even more recent net out-migration to economic weakness. Unless commodity prices rise enough to make our extractive industries as lucrative as they once were, a prospect many would be reluctant to bet on, we should expect a much softer version of the out-migration that followed our province’s economic downturn with the 1990s’ cod stock declines.

These concerns should not cause gloom. NL can remain an outstanding place for many people to live even if fewer choose to call it home. Even if we don’t remain as one of Canada’s richest provinces, we can still enjoy levels of prosperity unknown in most of the world. There are also policies that could help maintain our living standards—government services can be right-sized to the populations they serve, healthcare can focus on in-home accommodations for seniors to save on in-patient care, and small communities can be allowed to relocate more easily if their residents so wish. Other examples of potential adaptations abound.

Although an older and smaller population may reduce NL’s workforce and its government budget’s net balance, a sole focus on preventing these irrevocable trends may result in little other than disappointment. The Provincial Growth Strategy will hopefully succeed in softening these trends. But, given the inevitability of demographic change, the strategy’s message should be matched with the caveats that head-counts aren’t everything and that we can also plan to adapt to population changes.