by Jesse Robichaud, Times & Transcript Staff

Premier Shawn Graham announced yesterday that the province’s newly formed Population Growth Secretariat will conduct a consultation tour of New Brunswick to help shape its population growth strategy.

Graham and Business New Brunswick minister Greg Byrne launched a discussion paper on the subject as well as a web site designed to stir discussion regarding the retention of current New Brunswickers, the repatriation of former residents and the expansion of immigration and settlement activities. Graham said it will take wide-ranging participation in the initiative in order for New Brunswick to meet the challenge posed by an aging population, low birth rates, growing out-migration to other provinces and impending labour shortages.

“For years new Brunswick has been against the ropes in its struggle with population decline,” said Graham.

“Many of us have seen our own family and friends leave in search of opportunities elsewhere,” he added, calling population decline the biggest obstacle facing his government’s self-sufficiency agenda.

“Our wake up call is that we’re seeing the longest period of sustained population decline since the great depression.”

The consultation tour will consist of town-hall meetings in Saint John, July 4; Fredericton. July 5; Bathurst, July 11; Moncton, July 12, and Edmundston, July 17. The strategy is expected to be released this fall.

Byrne said that with New Brunswick facing an aging population, low birth rates, high out migration of youth to other provinces, and immigration barriers, the province’s business are caught in a perfect storm of human resource shortages.

“We can no longer ignore these demographic challenges, today’s announcement represents our government’s commitment to meeting these challenges straight on.”

Charles Cirtwill, acting president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, says consultation is good, but action is better.

“While they are running this consultation process there are all kinds of things they can be doing right now to get people coming to New Brunswick.”

For example, the province can move more quickly on reforming credential recognition, a process that has begun but is moving along slowly.

“Let’s borrow some of the existing work that has been done in other provinces around ‘credentialling’ from various other states and institutions, and just apply them.”

Cirtwill also believes New Brunswick needs to take the entry caps off of categories of immigrants, such as business people.

And although creating family friendly tax structures and programs to increase the province’s birthrate won’t show results tomorrow, Cirtwill believes the time to act is now on a long-term strategy.

“They certainly shouldn’t be ignoring the biases they have built into the tax system against raising a family,” he said, noting that access to day care has to be addressed. Cirtwill dismissed any notion that the government is putting the cart in front of the horse by looking to attract people instead of chasing after businesses that would in turn attract people.

“In fact what I would suggest is that they have waited for the cart to run over the horse before they started to do things,” he said.

“Your economy is already growing, I think it is expected to grow next year at two and a half per cent, you already have a labour shortage, you have jobs for these people if you can convince them to stay or convince them to come back.”

University of Toronto economist David Foot, who has written extensively on demographics and their impact on the economy, said New Brunswick is moving more aggressively on developing a population growth strategy than any other province.

“A lot of provinces have looked at this in a very piecemeal type of way, but very few have settled down to look at it in a much more comprehensive way.”