Census numbers show Halifax’s population continues to grow while most rural areas in the province lose residents.

Figures from the 2011 census show Nova Scotia’s capital grew by 4.7 per cent over five years, from 372,858 to 390,328.

Don McIver, director of research at the Atlantic Institute of Market Studies, said young people continue to head to the city for opportunities that no longer exist at home.

“Nearly every county is in decline except Halifax,” he said Wednesday.

The population of the Cape Breton Regional Municipality dropped 4.7 per cent from 2006, from 102,250 to 97,398.

That’s one of the biggest declines for communities in Canada with populations over 10,000.

McIver said federal and provincial regional development programs are doing little to reverse the urban trend.

“You can’t create jobs where they’re not economically viable. I think it’s unwise to put the focus on preventing people from making the economic advance that they would if they moved,” he said.

John Whalley, the economic development manager for the Cape Breton Regional Municipality, blamed the provincial government for the loss in population.

He said the municipality needs a larger share of the federal equalization money for local economic development and argued the province is focusing too much on controlling the deficit.

“If you’re following a very restrictive fiscal policy in an environment that has 16 per cent unemployment and is losing 900 to 1,000 people every year, that’s probably not a very good policy for this region,” Whalley said.

“It may be appropriate somewhere else but in this environment, it’s actually destabilizing an unstable environment.”

Overall, Nova Scotia grew by 0.9 per cent, which is far below the national rate of 5.9 per cent.

The province attracted more than 2,000 immigrants in 2010 and some experts said those immigrants are staying in Nova Scotia longer than they used to.

“All of the Atlantic provinces have been successful at retaining immigrants,” said Ather Akbari, a professor of economics at Saint Mary’s University.

He said in Nova Scotia the retention rate jumped to 65 per cent by 2007, up from 40 per cent only a few years earlier.

“More of the immigrants coming to this region are job-focused in that they have a job before coming here. The provincial nominee programs have played an important role in this,” said Akbari.

While Nova Scotia has welcomed immigrants for centuries, it was only in 2005 that the province introduced a formal strategy to draw more people to the province.

Last April, Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter said his government planned to attract 7,200 immigrants a year by 2020, up from the current goal of 3,600. To do that, he added $790,000 to the province’s $5.1-million immigration budget.

In December, all four Atlantic premiers called on Ottawa to increase the caps on each province’s nominee program.