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Illustration by Anthony Jenkins (The Globe and Mail)
Illustration by Anthony Jenkins (The Globe and Mail)

JOHN IBBITSON

How to stop demographic suicide Add to ...

In the first three months of this year, Manitoba’s population increased by 2,700 souls. In that same period, Nova Scotia’s population declined by 1,100.

The Nova Scotia government projects that the province will slump from its current level of 942,300 people to 917,400 by 2035. Manitoba, in contrast, is expected to grow from its current 1.25 million to 1.6 million by 2026.

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Why is Manitoba’s population swelling, while Nova Scotia’s thins? One word: immigration. Manitoba recruits newcomers aggressively; Nova Scotia doesn’t.

Immigration is helping to power and sustain the Prairie province’s boom in natural resources and manufacturing, with unemployment at only 5.7 per cent, well below the national average of 7.2 per cent. The largest Maritime province, meanwhile, struggles with labour shortages and an unemployment rate of 9.5 per cent.

There are signs that Nova Scotians are finally waking up to this slow demographic suicide. And not a moment too soon.

For more than a decade, Manitoba has aggressively recruited new arrivals: promoting the province overseas; providing immigrants with the necessary training and support when they arrive; and encouraging many of them to avoid Winnipeg in favour of smaller cities and towns where workers are in short supply.

Last year, 15,805 immigrants arrived in Manitoba, the most since 1946, most of them under a federal program that lets provinces nominate candidates for immigration. And more than 85 per cent of immigrants who go there stay there.

The province does a particularly good job of matching newcomers to unfilled jobs. The top three job categories for immigrants in 2009 were industrial butchers, truck drivers and welders.

“The Manitoba government can take credit” for the influx, says Lori Wilkinson, a professor of sociology at the University of Manitoba who specializes in immigration issues. Immigration “isn’t a priority for one department; it’s a priority for the whole government.”

Until very recently, Nova Scotia did none of what Manitoba does, or did it badly. One example: The decision to outsource a mentorship program for economic-class immigrants to a private company ended in recriminations and lawsuits.

Although Nova Scotia’s population is about three-quarters the size of Manitoba’s – at least for now – last year, it took in a paltry 2,408 immigrants, 15 per cent of the Manitoba total.

“We have a 3-D crisis in Nova Scotia: debt, deficits and demographics,” said Nova Scotia Liberal MP Scott Brison. “Without new blood, Nova Scotia faces a bleak future. Politicians, both federally and provincially, need to wake up to this.”

Part of the problem is that Nova Scotia traditionally hasn’t encouraged immigration.

“There’s a psyche that ‘we’re a have-not province with high unemployment, so why do we want to bring in immigrants? They’re going to take our jobs,’ ” observes Claudette Legault. She is program director at ISIS, an agency that operates settlement programs for immigrants to Nova Scotia.

But Nova Scotians are being forced to reconsider their settled assumptions. As more people leave the province, fewer young workers are available to support an aging population. Even with high unemployment, Nova Scotia faces growing labour shortages in key areas of its economy.

Those few immigrants who do come to the province, according to census data, earn more than the native born, are more than twice as likely to own their own business, are far less likely to end up on unemployment insurance, and pay a higher rate of income tax.

The NDP government of Darrell Dexter is determined to reverse the province’s dismal performance in attracting newcomers. It launched a new strategy in April with a goal of recruiting 7,200 immigrants annually by 2020, and persuading 70 per cent of them to stay. Historically, six in 10 immigrants to Nova Scotia abandoned the province soon after arriving, although that number has improved in recent years.

This new resolve reflects a growing consensus that the old social solidarity must give way if the province is to survive. “Things are changing,” Ms. Legault believes. “Communities and individuals are more welcoming … they are becoming more inclusive.”

Societies can change and grow, even in the Maritimes. It will be good for every part of this country if, one day, Nova Scotia gives Manitoba a run for its money as a place new Canadians call home.

Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson

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