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Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)
Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)

Jeffrey Simpson

Newfoundlanders return, but the outports are still in peril Add to ...

For the first time in almost four decades, the population of Newfoundland and Labrador has actually grown. That's good news, however temporary, for a province that since 1992 has lost 12 per cent of its population.

Credit (if that is the word) the travails of the Alberta oil and gas industries for the uptick in Newfoundland's population in the first half of 2009, plus a steady economy at home.

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Many of those jobs at the oil sands and other projects in Alberta dried up in the fall of 2008, sending Newfoundlanders back to their home province, including some to the outports and other small towns that have been losing people for a long time.

The decline of rural Canada is apparent everywhere, save for those areas lucky enough to have mining or fossil fuels. But forestry is in decline and, in Newfoundland, the fishery continues to shed people.

At least rhetorically, Newfoundland governments have always been for keeping the rural part of the province alive and thriving. And there have been some spotty successes.

Some of that money earned from Alberta has returned to outports to rebuild or spruce up homes. People from "away" have found these communities delightful and purchased second homes there. Sometimes, although not often, Newfoundlanders have returned to the outports to retire, although most of them prefer to be nearer large medical complexes. And, of course, tourism has shown sprightly growth in recent years, giving an economic boost to some places.

The overall numbers, however, do not lie. Half the population now lives in the Avalon peninsula, home to thriving St. John's. The strong economy in and around the provincial capital explains why the recession has struck Newfoundland somewhat less heavily than other parts of Canada. The housing market in and around St. John's is among the hottest in Canada. In a province with an 18-per-cent unemployment rate, it's often hard to find skilled workers to build or renovate houses, some of that labour having gone to Western Canada.

A double migration has hit rural Newfoundland: to St. John's and to other parts of Canada.

The collapse of the cod fishery - with no scientific signs of any recovery, alas - crippled many outports, and still does. Shrimp and crab now produce more dollars than cod, but fewer people are employed in the fishery industry than before the cod collapse.

Many communities are now down to a few dozen families, or fewer. How to service them with health care, education, snow removal and other necessities vexes the provincial government. Closing communities is among the most highly charged political issues in the province. An alternative is to group them to share services.

Still, it's expensive whatever the government does, evidence for which is that per-capita health-care costs in Newfoundland are, along with Alberta, the highest in Canada.

There's another reason for those high costs: an older population. As Memorial University geographer Keith Storey underscored in a recent paper, the median age for people living in Newfoundland in 1971 was 20.9; now it's 42.

Most of those leaving the province have been in their 20s and early 30s, leaving a distended population bulge of people over 60. The aging of the Canadian population is a national challenge that economist Pierre Fortin has estimated will cost the federal Treasury an additional $40-billion by 2020. But the aging is especially acute in Newfoundland and the other Atlantic provinces, as a C.D. Howe Institute study noted yesterday.

Happily for Newfoundland, the province no longer receives equalization payments, a testament to its oil and gas revenues. Its oil industry seems set to keep producing until 2022.

So the province could, and should, use a chunk of those revenues (and future ones from the Lower Churchill hydro project, if it ever gets built) to pay down its large per-capita debt to prepare for the upsurge in costs from the aging of its population.

The provincial government, well aware that Newfoundland has the lowest fertility rate in Canada at 1.3 births per woman, is trying to do something about it. It awards families $1,000 per birth and a $100-a-month parental leave subsidy as part of a $4.5-million budget. But if the evidence of similar natalist policies elsewhere is any guide, these financial inducements are way too small to change people's behaviour.

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