By Rod Allen
As appeared on page A1

From a wide angle, Statistics Canada’s ‘snapshot’ of the country’s population growth in the 2006 census does not appear to make a pretty picture for the ‘picture province.’ The census results released yesterday indicate that New Brunswick’s and Atlantic Canada’s birth rate lags behind the country as a whole, and that isn’t great to begin with.

Canada’s birth rate in 2005-6 was 1.5 children born per woman – well under the ‘replacement rate’ of 2.1 per cent – or 10.6 children born per 1,000 population. New Brunswick’s birth rate is even less than that – 9.1. babies per 1,000 people and the fourth consecutive decrease, dropping a 10th of a percentage point annually. This gets to be a problem down the road when there are fewer taxpayers to replace those who retire or die, so there’s less money to fund everything from highways to health care.

But this isn’t really a problem for Canada as a whole because immigration is fuelling the best population growth among the G8 industrialized nations. Canada’s population growth rate is 5.6 per cent from 2005 to 2006 and four per cent over five years, from the last census in 2001.

Barring unforeseen changes in the demographic, the experts say Canadian population growth will be 100 per cent reliant on immigration after 2030, when the majority of the ‘baby boom’ generation born in the 1950s and early 1960s will die off.

“You’re going to see an increase in the number of deaths in Canada and the number of deaths will exceed the number of births – so natural increase will become negative,” says Statistics Canada analyst Laurent Martel.

“The only factor of growth will then be immigration.”

In the five-year census interval, only 400,000 babies were born in Canada, but 1.2 million immigrants – about 240,000 new arrivals annually – produced that four per cent growth over five years to 31.6 million.

Statistics Canada has yet to release figures showing the proportion of foreign-born residents among the provincial populations for the 2006 census, but they do show the number of immigrants who arrived in New Brunswick last year relative to the rest of the country.

In Canada, from July 1, 2005 to June 30, 2006, there were 343,517 babies born and 254,359 immigrants arrived so ‘new arrivals’ total 597,876 and immigration accounts for 42.5 per cent of that total. In New Brunswick over the same period there were 6,837 births and 1,387 immigrants for a total of 8,224 new arrivals, so immigration accounts for only 17 per cent.

However, the real margin is much slimmer.

Even though New Brunswick’s population grew marginally over the five-year census period, 1.1 per cent from 729,498 in 2001 to 729,997 in 2006, we appear to have lost taxpayers.

‘Net interprovincial migration’ – Canadians moving from one province to another – is a positive number in booming provinces such as Alberta and Ontario but a negative factor in Atlantic Canada, including New Brunswick.

The province had a net loss of 3,788 people last year due specifically to interprovincial migration – 3,788 more residents left the province than arrived. It is likely that many of those departures were recent arrivals to New Brunswick from outside Canada.

Although there are no statistics to show retention rates among the provinces – that is the number of immigrants to a province who remain there for at least a year – historical census data supports what provincial authorities here have suspected all along; that few immigrants stay in New Brunswick.

The last three censuses taken in 1991, 1996 and 2001 show the vast majority of immigrants who ‘stay put’ settled in Ontario and British Columbia. Over those three censuses, the foreign-born population in those two provinces averages more than 25 per cent compared to 15 per cent in Alberta, 12 per cent in Manitoba and nine per cent in Quebec.

In all of Canada over that same decade, Newfoundland-Labrador has the lowest proportion at 1.5 per cent but New Brunswick is not much better at 3.2 per cent, the same as Prince Edward Island and lower than Nova Scotia at 4.5 per cent.

Why all this is of concern provincial governments and taxpayers is that when you get to the point where more people are leaving than arriving, fewer and fewer people are available to work and fund government services.

It’s a demographic squeeze shared by much of the developed world, and it will require some innovative thinking to overcome it says Charles Cirtwill, acting president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies in Halifax.

Today, federal immigration policy doesn’t work for Atlantic Canada so we have to develop our own, says Cirtwill.

“We’ve decided in Canada that immigration is very important to us so we’re going to manage it very carefully; we’re only to let a certain number in each year and we’re going to match them to the jobs that are available, and that’s just not how immigration works,” he says.

“The system has to be welcoming to everybody, and you have to create as many destinations in as many markets as you can.”

For example, the Atlantic provinces tend to market their regions internationally based entirely on what’s available in Moncton or Saint John or Halifax, when there is a world of opportunity in rural New Brunswick – aimed directly at vast rural populations in countries such as China.

Chinese farmers might be attracted to cheap land in New Brunswick, and not necessarily for the sole purpose of farming it, says Cirtwill.

The key issue that seems to escape much of our immigration policy is that people go where the opportunity is, he adds. There might be some opportunity for an Indian immigrant in Moncton, but it is likely shortly on his arrival here that he will see greater opportunity where the Indo-Canadian community is, in Toronto.

Rural immigrants, however, might be attracted to rural New Brunswick if the right opportunity is there – perhaps to be found in a shift away from the intensive labour of subsistence farming to growing grapes and creating a value-added regional product, such as ice wine.

Some rural communities would change dramatically from what they are – or what they were – but other regions have adapted to and embraced change, notes Cirtwill, citing the example of British Columbia’s Fraser Valley. A century ago there was friction between the white settlers and the new Chinese farmers who arrived there, but these days as the descendants of those Chinese farmers move to Vancouver, they are being replaced by Sikhs with comparatively little social tension.

A shift in immigration policy would also answer another demographic issue the new census has confirmed in New Brunswick: the emptying out of the rural regions – particularly in the north – into the three largest cities.

The 2006 census unveiled the country’s newest Census Metropolitan Area – Metropolitan Moncton – which has surpassed Saint John in population.

The Moncton CMA grew 6.5 per cent over the previous census, the City of Fredericton (too small to be a CMA) also grew substantially, by 5.3 per cent, and even the Saint John CMA, while shrinking slightly at a negative growth rate of minus .02 per cent, appears to have still pulled in increasing numbers of former rural dwellers via surrounding towns such as Quispamsis, which grew more than 10 per cent.

However, northern regions of New Brunswick are clearly in need of new people. Restigouche County as a whole, for example, lost 6.4 per cent of its 2001 population in this census while southern counties grew. Westmorland, which contains the Moncton CMA, for example, grew 6.5 per cent, the most among the 15 New Brunswick counties.

In any event, immigration shouldn’t be considered the only part of the demographics solution, says Cirtwill.

Ironically the 2006 census just missed the first year of a mini baby boom happening in Quebec.

Cirtwill attributes many of the 80,000 births in la belle province last year to an array of new provincial government programs, ranging from adoption of the defunct federal family allowance program to abandonment of the federal parental leave program for a much better provincial plan.

Those programs could work just as well in New Brunswick, says Cirtwill, “where the new government had unfortunately chosen to ignore them.”