After more than eight years living in places like Toronto and Vancouver, Miriam Zitner decided it was time to come home.
Zitner, a 33-year-old public relations consultant, left Halifax in 1999 to find work after finishing school. It was supposed to be a temporary move, just a few years to get some experience in a busier city. But then, she says, life got in the way.
“I’ve been thinking about coming back since I left,” says Zitner, whose story echoes countless others of former Atlantic Canadians waiting to return home.
“The whole way through I was thinking, ‘Well, Toronto’s not forever, it’s just for now,’ and it got to the point where it was eight years later and you go, ‘Oh God, I’m still here.’”
She spent four months looking for a comparable job in Halifax, but had no luck. Instead, she crafted a unique arrangement with her employer earlier this year to continue working for the same Toronto-based office remotely from Halifax.
That setup is about to end.
“It’s tricky,” she says hesitantly, adding that she can always freelance from home for companies in Toronto, but she’d much rather work for a Halifax firm.
“I don’t know, because the business community seems to be quite small here, and what I do is particular. There’s a ton of opportunity in cities that have head offices and companies that have a national focus.” Zitner is exactly the sort of ex-pat Atlantic Canadian that governments in the region are targeting as they try to boost their populations and curb potentially disastrous labour shortages.
But stories like Zitner’s, along with recently released census data, suggest Atlantic provinces are having trouble enticing former residents to return or persuading current residents to stay.
More than 37,500 Atlantic Canadians moved to another province or territory between 2005 and 2006, while about 27,000 people moved into the region from other parts of Canada. That’s a net loss of more than 10,000, and it represents a trend Statistics Canada predicts will continue.
Births and immigration seem to have picked up the slack, with the region’s overall population virtually unchanged. However, it’s clear the provinces, which are already facing a potential crisis in their aging workforces, are failing to draw enough people into the region.
Nova Scotia and New Brunswick appear to be taking the most aggressive approaches, each mounting recruiting drives across Canada and setting up job-matching programs to connect workers with employers.
In Nova Scotia, much of the past year has been spent branding the province to the rest of the country, casting it as a place with a vibrant economy that also offers a more relaxed lifestyle and lower cost of living.
And now the province is trying to couple that image with concrete jobs.
“They preached the benefits of living in Nova Scotia, but they did get a bit of feedback saying, ‘OK, show us the jobs and we’ll come,’” says Holly Dunn of the Opportunities Nova Scotia program, which recently held several recruitment events in Central and Western Canada.
“Opportunities Nova Scotia was stage two of that, to say, ‘We have jobs, hundreds of jobs, and there are going to be tens of thousands of jobs in the next five to 10 years.’”
New Brunswick’s strategy is much the same. In November, Greg Byrne, the cabinet minister who oversees the province’s new population growth secretariat, took more than a dozen information technology companies to Ottawa and Montreal ready to hand out 150 jobs.
Byrne says the province needs to find ways to bring in more workers as it moves to become self-sufficient by 2026, a goal that includes boosting the province’s population by 100,000.
The province is also enlisting New Brunswickers living away as so-called “ambassadors,” asking them to help sell New Brunswick even if they don’t plan on returning.
P.E.I. plans to release several strategies in the spring focusing on population growth and revamping the economy.
Among the focuses will be recruiting workers for the Island’s growing bioscience industry, creating incentives to encourage companies to move management or head offices to the province, and selling the quality-of-life benefits of doing business in P.E.I.
Newfoundland and Labrador’s approach is similar.
The province is also developing its own strategies, which will include a job-posting website and reaching out directly to former Newfoundlanders. The province is convinced that if it creates well-paying jobs, Newfoundlanders living in places like Alberta will jump at the chance to return.
It’s difficult to measure the success of such efforts. The next time the provinces could have a real idea of whether they’ve been able to stop the outflow of people and workers could be the 2011 census.
And while governments are predicting real progress, David Chaundy of the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council says they are facing an uphill battle.
“I think the key issue is there’s people here who are highly skilled who are leaving, and if you want to reduce outmigration you really need to create a sustained creation of high-paying, attractive jobs,” he says.
Chaundy says there are a number of factors working against Atlantic Canada.
For example, he says the region doesn’t have large concentrated cities to support a diverse labour market.
As well, newly graduated skilled workers with little experience may have trouble finding jobs in a smaller market while at the same time Atlantic Canada’s aging population will mean a loss of experienced employees.
However, the head of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a right-leaning think-tank based in Halifax, says outmigration isn’t necessarily the crisis many are painting it as.
Charles Cirtwill says Atlantic Canadians living outside the province may be more willing to do business with people and companies they know from back home, and that could prove a crucial boost the region’s economy.
Still, Cirtwill acknowledges the provinces need to create better-paying jobs to stop the population from shrinking.