Jatender Sachdev doesn’t need to consult immigration statistics to know that Nova Scotia is growing and changing. He just needs to go to Walmart.
Mr. Sachdev, who immigrated to Halifax from India in 2016, says the demographic transformation taking place in his adopted province is plain to see just by walking through his local shopping centre.
“I used to see one person who looked like me maybe once every 15 times I would go to Walmart. Now, I see them in every aisle, I see them at the counters. The change has been dramatic.”
As part of an unprecedented period of growth for Atlantic Canada’s most populous province, record levels of immigration have helped push Nova Scotia to the brink of a historic population milestone: the one million mark. According to Statistics Canada’s population clock, a real-time model that measures births, deaths, domestic migration and immigration, the province is fewer than 600 people away from that goal.
“It’s a major psychological milestone,” said Tom Urbaniak, a professor of political science at Cape Breton University. “In some communities in Nova Scotia, there will be a buzz around this, because the prevailing paradigm had been one of stagnation and in some cases decline. This represents a change in the narrative.”
In 2013, just 1,474 immigrants landed in Nova Scotia. This year, it’s expected that number will be somewhere near 7,000. Mr. Sachdev says he’s watched Halifax transform in just a few short years from a relatively quiet East Coast city to an increasingly diverse, energized urban centre of half a million people where new condo towers and construction cranes are popping up all the time.
On top of record levels of immigration, there’s been a dramatic increase in interprovincial migration to Nova Scotia, particularly among people leaving Ontario, Quebec and the Western provinces during the COVID-19 pandemic. Between July 1, 2020, and June 30, 2021, nearly 10,000 more people came to Nova Scotia from other provinces or territories than left Nova Scotia – a dramatic shift in traditional population migration patterns in Canada.
That eastward movement, some of it driven by people born in the province or who attended university there, is fuelling a new optimism about Nova Scotia’s future after six straight years of population growth.
“Nova Scotians have always been wanderers. But we also have an incredible homing device. We want those people to come back,” said Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston. “I think people are starting to reassess their quality of life, and they’re starting to clue in to what we have here, and are saying, ‘That’s what I want.’ ”
Population growth is a major plank of Mr. Houston’s Tory government, which wants to double the number of Nova Scotians to two million by 2060. The Premier acknowledges that won’t come without challenges, particularly around keeping housing prices affordable, building enough schools and helping all those newcomers find family doctors – an issue that played no small role in the August provincial election.
Mr. Houston says he’s focused on “planned growth,” and has introduced tax breaks for tradespeople under 30, designed to keep them in the province and maintain a skilled labour force able to address shortages in the housing supply. His government has also launched a recruitment program to lure more doctors and nurses.
“We know that a lot has to happen to prepare our communities for that growth. When new people get here, they need to have a doctor, they need to have confidence in the education system, and they need to be able to afford housing,” he said. “We’ve never really had a plan for population growth before, and we’re trying to learn from those mistakes.”
The Premier says it helps that the new federal Immigration Minister, Sean Fraser, is from rural Nova Scotia, and understands how important newcomers are to the economic future of small towns such as those scattered around his province.
The trend in remote work, and a growing creative, entrepreneurial class in Nova Scotia also bodes well for future growth, Prof. Urbaniak says. There’s less reliance on the big, government-subsidized projects of the past that have created boom-and-bust cycles.
In Halifax, the growth is already putting pressure on the expanding city. And it’s forcing Nova Scotians to adjust some long-held attitudes about people who “come from away” versus lifelong “Bluenosers,” Prof. Urbaniak said.
“Halifax is now a major city, and it’s grappling with big city problems like urban sprawl, public transportation and development charges. We also have to do away with this artificial distinction between people who have settled here recently and people who can claim multigenerational roots in Nova Scotia.”
Many of Nova Scotia’s international arrivals, such as Mr. Sachdev, are coming through the provincial nominee program, which allows the government to fast-track immigrants in certain sectors. That program has grown significantly in the past decade, to 1,900 people last year from just 23 nominees in 2003.
The federal Atlantic Immigration Pilot program, which helps employers in Atlantic Canada hire foreign skilled workers, has also doubled the number of people it’s bringing to Nova Scotia since it began in 2018, to 1,617 last year.
Mr. Sachdev, a father of two who runs a busy real-estate business selling homes to new Canadians, said many immigrants are attracted to Halifax as a safer, more affordable and less hectic alternative to larger cities. That’s what drew him and his wife five years ago, and now they can’t imagine living anywhere else.
“When we first came, we thought, okay, we’ll try it for two or three years. Now we have two kids, we have more time with family, and we love living here.”
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