FREDERICTON – New Brunswick has failed to meet population growth projections set about a decade ago by a regional economic think-tank, and actually recorded a reversal in its population count.

The Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) said shrinking population numbers hit all four Atlantic provinces hard over the last 10 years, as detailed in a report released yesterday which followed up on a study first published in 1998.

Furthermore, the study said the problem threatens to develop into a crisis because further regional population declines are being predicted for the future.

In 1998, the collective population of all four Atlantic provinces was predicted to increase by about 35,000 people over 10 years. Instead, the new report says the region’s population decreased by 47,000 people in that time.

“New Brunswick actually stands out as sore thumb both on the population side and on the labour shortage side,” said Charles Cirtwill, president and CEO of AIMS. “We projected back in 1998 that New Brunswick’s population would have grown by about 25,000.

“It’s actually declined by 7,000.”

Cirtwill said New Brunswick’s labour force numbers were better than projected back in 1998, but that it still doesn’t look too impressive when compared to its neighbouring provinces.

“Unlike everybody else on the labour force side, we projected that New Brunswick’s labour force would grow about 20,000,” he said. “It has grown about by 40,000 but most of the other provinces grew about 200 per cent faster than we expected.”

The AIMS report says flat fertility rates are a cause for the decline, along with population losses seen through net out-migration to the rest of Canada and failure to attract and retain immigrants.

If the new study’s latest set of predictions pan out, AIMS says New Brunswick will continue to see its population shrink within the next 40 years.

In 2006, the province’s population was 745,700 (making up about 2.3 per cent of the nation’s total population). The new report suggests that in 2046, New Brunswick’s population might plummet to 666,700 people — a loss of 79,000 people from 2006 numbers, or a 10.5 per cent decrease (making up about 1.6 per cent of the nation’s estimated total population in 2046).

The projections are based on an AIMS computer model, taking progress marks at five-year intervals.

AIMS says their study is a “broad outline,” but nonetheless a marker of what seems likely from current perspectives assuming that current fertility levels will persist and that mortality rates will continue to decline,

The study says migration is a more difficult matter to determine, but that barring a major shift in locational patterns of immigrants right now, the study holds up.

The authors of the report say that’s cause for concern both in New Brunswick and across the region.

“Education and health care are major budgetary components that obviously are sensitive to population change, and they deserve special attention,” read the AIMS report released yesterday. “Planning should anticipate that the school-age population is likely to be smaller in the years ahead than it is today.

“How many teachers will be required in 10, 20 or 30 years? How many will have to be hired, after taking into account the likely numbers of retirements and departures for other reasons?”

The provincial government responded to the AIMS study yesterday, saying that its strategy of increasing the province’s population, cemented in 2008, was yielding results.

“Government started taking action on that with the creation of the Population Growth Secretariat and its strategy,” said Brendan Langille, a government spokesman.

“There are definitely some results there.”

The official strategy to increase New Brunswick’s population (with a goal of adding 100,000 people before the year 2026) includes targets for immigration, retaining youth, repatriating former New Brunswickers and also adopting family-friendly policies.

Langille said New Brunswick had since recorded 10-straight quarters of population growth, with the province’s population increasing by about 4,588 people since January 2007.

Numbers released in September by the Statistics Canada suggested New Brunswick’s population grew 0.07 per cent between April and June, with nearly 600 new immigrants.

Langille said the province is taking the necessary steps needed to counter trends suggested in the AIMS report.