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A community welcome sign in Bridgetown, Nova Scotia, May 28 , 2012. (Paul Darrow for The Globe and Mail)
A community welcome sign in Bridgetown, Nova Scotia, May 28 , 2012. (Paul Darrow for The Globe and Mail)

Demographics

Rural Nova Scotia faces demographic reality of elderly, declining population Add to ...

Bridgetown’s biggest employer these days is the seniors home – and that, in a nutshell, tells the story of what is happening in rural Nova Scotia.

The province is aging, more so than the rest of Canada. And it is small towns such as Bridgetown, nestled in the lush Annapolis Valley, that are trying to deal with this new demographic reality – an elderly and declining population – as industry leaves rural Nova Scotia, with young people not far behind.

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Over the 10 years leading to the 2006 census, the median age in Nova Scotia increased by six years, compared to just four years in Canada as a whole. The province has the highest proportion of residents older than 65, at 16 per cent. By 2036, projections show somewhere between one in four and one in three residents will be of retirement age.

But, like other small towns, Bridgetown is resilient – forced to reinvent itself every few decades, or die. In 2011, Bridgetown’s population dropped to 949 residents, down from 972 in 2006. Five years before, the population just topped 1,000 people.

In the 1980s, Bridgetown lost its main employer when the Acadian Distillery factory shut down, leaving between 200 and 300 people out of work. An aviation manufacturer moved in to the building – but that didn’t work out. The elastics factory that had also employed more than 200 people closed its doors in 2004 – and has been idle since.

Now it’s the Mountain Lea Lodge and the Adult Residential Centre that provide the most jobs – about 200.

Steve Raftery, the town’s community development co-ordinator, says Bridgetown’s economic strategy is “new dividends from old stock.”

“We can’t be working to build new buildings for every project in town when we have empty buildings,” Mr. Raftery says. “We’ve got to do something with the existing stuff.”

So when the town needed a new library it rehabilitated a gas station instead of putting up a grand new expensive building that would have taken years to beg for.

The old distillery, at 58,000 square feet, which has operated as the town’s development centre, was purchased last year for $25,000 by local business people.

Terry Saunders, 49, and his brother Shaun, 50, who grew up in Bridgetown and have seen most of their friends leave, have already converted about half the space into a sports facility with a hockey rink and a soccer training area.

They hope to market it eventually as a hockey academy and are in discussions with the school board.

“You have to shoot big,” Shaun says. “We have to.”

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Fewer children, fewer schools?

Enrolment at the local schools in Bridgetown is a familiar story for population-challenged towns.

Enrolment is declining and communities are fighting hard to save their schools.

Last year, there were 161 children enrolled at Bridgetown Regional Elementary school; this year there are 135. The high school, which just this year became a Grade 6 to Grade 12 school, saw its enrolment increase from 379 to 414. But there is a proposal to close the elementary school after 2015 and renovate the high school to have just one location providing Kindergarten to Grade 12.

In its budget this spring, the Dexter NDP government realigned funds due to declining enrolment: $13.4-million was chopped from the $1-billion education envelope.

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Keeping people by keeping jobs

A big challenge for rural Nova Scotia is retaining its population and attracting new people – and as industry goes, so goes the labour force.

Projections are that within a couple of years, Halifax will employ half the province’s work force.

“We have to fight hard to keep what we have,” says Steve Raftery, the town’s community development co-ordinator, noting there is a new movement of “townsizing” – some younger and middle-aged people are looking to get out of the city but still live in an “intact community.”

There are about 30 homes for sale in and around the town. Real estate agent Bruce Hutchinson says this is fairly typical. However, he adds, “We seem to see more forced sales and prices below assessed value in recent years.”

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Industrial-strength problem

Steve Raftery has seen no big industry move into Bridgetown since he became the community development co-ordinator seven years ago.

He is frustrated, too, by recent cuts to the regional development body, the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, which removes a layer of potential support for the small town.

Unemployment in Nova Scotia is around 9 per cent, higher than the national average and three points above that of Halifax. Premier Darrell Dexter has been wrestling with this, announcing a controversial plan in its March Throne Speech that would see nearly 100 provincial government jobs move from Halifax to rural areas.

The jobs are not going to the Annapolis Valley, but to other parts of the province.

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