By David Campbell
Another columnist told me recently he sometimes has trouble finding enough topics for his weekly column. I have the opposite problem. My challenge is sifting through a variety of potential themes to pick one that might pique your interest.
It is tempting to serve up another missive on the merits of the NB Power/Hydro-Québec deal, but after nearly three weeks of steady abuse on my blog (over 500 comments – most overwhelmingly negative) and dozens of emails and telephone calls I need a breather. I suspect you do too.
So I’ll turn my attention this week to the new report from the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies warning against the impacts of the declining population in Atlantic Canada.
The think-tank says New Brunswick “stands out as sore thumb” when it comes to population decline in recent years. In 1998 AIMS forecasted that the province’s population would have grown by about 25,000 but instead it has declined by 7,000.
I hate to be the one to break it to AIMS and to you, but there are many policy makers and influencers in Ottawa and in New Brunswick who very quietly believe population decline is a good thing.
They actually cheer it on. For them it is about people moving from areas of the country where the economy is weak to areas where the economy is strong. It’s a win-win, right? New Brunswick gets to claim the lowest unemployment rate in 30 years and has fewer mouths to feed. Fiscal equalization will be there to fill in the gaps. What could be wrong with that?
The Lord government’s Prosperity Plan never once mentioned the emerging challenge of population stagnation and decline. In fact, it wasn’t even on the agenda until a shocked public got the results of the 2001 census which showed the first inter-census population decline since the Great Depression.
Then the government half-heartedly set up a Population Secretariat to look at the issue.
Bernard Lord was the first elected premier in history to witness a declining population during his time in office and I can’t recall this point ever being mentioned in the media or by those attempting to assess his legacy.
There are over 270 municipalities in New Brunswick (census sub-divisions). More than two-thirds of them experienced population decline from 1996 to 2006.
The overall population of New Brunswick declined by one per cent from 1996 to 2006. The population excluding the Moncton and Fredericton regions declined by almost five per cent.
I do not believe population decline is a good thing. I believe it is an insidious cancer that eats away at local communities and weakens our collective ambition. It forces our communities to turn evermore inward and become increasingly defensive even at the price of progress.
Consider the reaction in northern New Brunswick to the proposed sale of NB Power.
Instead of looking at it as a way to shore up the forest products and other energy-intensive industries that are predominately located in rural and northern New Brunswick, the worry is over one more plant closure (the closure of electricity generation facilities).
Who can blame them? After years of closures, a defensive posture like this was inevitable.
New Brunswick needs a deliberate and sustained economic development effort that can build up regional economies within the province, restore our confidence and bring back our ambition for the future.
David Campbell is an economic development consultant based in Moncton. He writes a daily blog, It’s the Economy Stupid, at www.davidwcampbell.com.