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Atlantic Canada's incredible shrinking population

Map highlighting Atlantic CanadaImage via WikipediaThe Globe & Mail is running a series called "Canada: Our Time to Lead. Eight Discussions We Need to Have" saying "We hope, and intend, for this discussion to strike at the heart of how Canadians define ourselves, and our nation." The eight discussions that will help us define ourselves, according to the Globe, are: multiculturalism, women in power, failing boys, military, work-life, health care, Internet and food.
If we are looking to "strike at the heart of how we define the nation," I suggest we start a ninth discussion. It may not be top of mind in Toronto but I think it has much more potential to shape our collective concept of Canada - for better or worse - over the next few decades.
I am referring to the hollowing out of Atlantic Canada's population and its eventual impacts. We could also add Manitoba and even Quebec to the discussion because some of the challenges are the same but for simplicity I will stick to the Atlantic Canada problem.
There is an unprecedented demographic shift happening in the region. In the early 1970s, the population was growing at a fairly strong rate driven by natural population increases, net in-migration and at least a limited level of immigration.
Then something happened.
First, the limited immigration to Atlantic Canada mostly dried up (particularly as a share of national immigration). From 1990 to 2009, Canada welcomed more than four million new immigrants to the country - the largest swell of immigrant population in history. During that same period, New Brunswick, as an example, attracted an average of just more than 900 new immigrants per year.
Second, net in-migration into Atlantic Canada turned to net out-migration. From 1971 to 1976, the four Atlantic provinces combined had a positive migration from the rest of Canada of nearly 30,000 people. To be clear, that is 30,000 (net) people moving to Atlantic Canada from the rest of Canada. In the most current five year period (2005-2009), there was a net out-migration of 36,000 people from Atlantic Canada. That is a 66,000 swing comparing a five year period in the early 1970s to the late 2000s (or just about the population of the City of Moncton).
When you combine these trends with the declining birth rate you end up with regional population decline. Since 1990, Canada added more than six million people to its population while Atlantic Canada has shed 21,000.
There has been some limited positive activity on the immigration front in the past couple of years but the long term trend is unmistakable.
The regional demographic mix in Canada is diverging. The population of Atlantic Canada is comparatively old, white and declining. The population of the rest of Canada - particularly the large urban centres - is younger, multicultural and growing rapidly.
The implications of this demographic shift are starting to emerge with economic, community and fiscal consequences. We've seen what can happen to a city that suffers from chronic population loss but what about when it happens to an entire region such as Atlantic Canada? How do we continue to pay for public services? How do we support a positive economic development agenda?
People grumble about the balance of power now. At least most of the current political and bureaucratic decision makers in Ottawa have a limited affinity toward or knowledge of Atlantic Canada. By 2030 it is likely most MPs in Ottawa will have never even visited this region.
This issue may not reach the Globe & Mail's threshold for warranting a discussion, compared to the urgent topic of Torontonian work-life balance, but someone needs to start talking about it.
David Campbell is an economic development consultant based in Moncton. He writes a daily blog, It's the Economy Stupid, at

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