by David Shipley (as appeared on page A1)

At first glance the numbers are grim. Five of seven New Brunswick cities will lose population over the next half-decade. The provincial population as whole will only grow by one per cent as deaths begin to outpace births.

But municipalities in the province and the new Liberal government may still have time to turn New Brunswick’s demographic stagnation around, says the head of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies.

“For the first time in at least my generation, we’re starting to see Atlantic Canadians respond to these kinds of challenges with a ‘we’re going to find a way to fix this and make things better’ response as opposed to ‘who is going to come and help us?” said Charles Cirtwill, acting president of the Halifax-based think tank.

“Look at the plans that are in place for the Saint John community, take a look at the continued plans for Moncton and the folks there, you take a look at how serious the folks in Edmundston are in terms of trying to make their economy grow.”

The Graham government’s focus on economic development is also a step in the right direction, he said.

According to the Canadian Demographics 2007 report by the Financial Post, Bathurst, Edmundston, Campbelton and Miramichi will continue to see their populations decline over the next half-decade.

Meanwhile Saint John, which has seen its population grow since 2001, will begin losing population.

Only Moncton and Fredericton will see growth in the near future. The Hub City and its surrounding communities will lead growth in the province, adding 7,000 new residents while the capital region will add just over 4,000. The Greater Moncton area’s population will hit 137,000 people by 2012, while the Fredericton area will reach 92,700 and the Saint John area will decline to 125,000.

Cities in decline in the province need to look at what growing communities have done to improve their local economy, said Cirtwill.

It’s a process Moncton went through more than a decade ago when it launched a concerted effort to focus on economic development, he said.

“I think the Saint John area is coming to the same conclusion and hopefully they’ll be as successful as Moncton was.”

David Chaundry, a senior economist with the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council, said the addition of a second oil refinery in Saint John could help reverse population decline in the Port City.

Many demographic projections such as the ones used in the Canadian Demographics report rely on historical trends as well as economic information as part of their estimates.

“If you have a second refinery requiring 1,000 full-time jobs, plus the spinoff benefits, that could easily affect those kinds of assumptions,” he said.

Irving Oil announced in October it was exploring the constructing a new 300,000 barrel-per-day oil refinery in Saint John.

The refinery will cost between $5 and $7 billion and employ up to 5,000 people during its construction.

A decision by the company on whether it will move forward with the project is expected with the next several months.

Chaundry said the Canaport liquefied natural gas terminal in Saint John will not have much of an impact on population without attracting spinoff industries. It will employ fewer than 50 people full time.

Cirtwill said it will take time for the communities in the province experiencing population decline to benefit from economic development plans.

“We’re probably going to see another couple of years of this kind of gradual decline,” he said. “The key is whether or not we get discouraged by it, whether or not we go back to the same historical solutions of ‘well maybe somebody else can come in here and help us.'”

Yet despite his optimism, he admits not every community will be successful.

“The inevitable reality is that some of these communities aren’t going to be able to be saved.”