By Quentin Casey
As appeared on page A1


Some experts call it a full blown crisis. Premier Shawn Graham calls it a “demographic perfect storm.” But regardless of title, New Brunswick is clearly suffering from a declining and aging population.

On Friday, Graham announced his government’s first attempt to reverse that trend – a population growth secretariat – will start up on April 1. But the plan doesn’t have everyone giddy with optimism. As one critic said Friday, it appears to be “all sizzle and no steak.”

The secretariat was promised by the Liberals during the summer election campaign, as was a pledge to attract 5,000 immigrants a year by 2015.

“We are being hit by a demographic perfect storm,” Graham told the legislative assembly Friday. “More people are dying than are being born, too many people – especially skilled young people – are leaving and we are not attracting new Canadians at the same level as other provinces.”

The purpose of the secretariat is to retain young New Brunswickers, while attempting to repatriate those who have pursued opportunity outside the province. It will also try to improve the province’s lacklustre immigration system, which has failed to attract, and retain, a substantial amount of new residents. The government released few details on how it plans to actually accomplish those goals, a fact that wasn’t lost on some.

“People aren’t going to decide to return to New Brunswick because they get a glossy brochure,” said Charles Cirtwill, acting president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a Halifax think-tank.

“If New Brunswick doesn’t make itself more competitive, it won’t matter. (It appears) to be all sizzle and no steak.”

Constantine Passaris, an economics professor and expert on out-migration at the University of New Brunswick, applauds the move, but wishes it had come much earlier.

“This is a step in the right direction,” he said in an interview.

“We may be a bit late in this. P.E.I., Nova Scotia and Newfoundland have already launched such initiatives. (This) has become a crisis. “

If we had started this 10 years ago, or even 20 years ago, we wouldn’t have a problem. Instead of being proactive, we’re being reactive.

“We don’t have the luxury of time on our side. We have to work fast and effectively.”

The secretariat will consist of a committee of deputy ministers and an advisory board made up of business, labour and education leaders. That doesn’t impress interim Conservative leader Jeannot Volpe, who says the program already exists within Business New Brunswick.

“There’s nothing new here,” he said. “What we’ve seen today again is a few words. At one point I thought they had lost some pages in the middle because they’re was nothing (there).
The system is already in place. Once again he’s using our (idea) and trying to say ‘this is mine.’ He hasn’t created anything yet, except for a few words that are very empty right now.”

As of last July there were 749,168 people in the New Brunswick, down almost 3,000 from 2004. At the current rate of decline, Statistics Canada predicts the population could fall as low as 708,000 by 2026. Graham said the current situation has stemmed from past failures, which must be dealt with immediately.

New Brunswick has not been as aggressive and successful in dealing with these demographic challenges as other provinces,” he said.

“We must recover lost ground.”