My column today is a variation on the series of ‘discussions’ that the Globe & Mail is having they say will help us redefine who we are as a nation. I realize I am studying a particular wedge of the Canadian economic situation but I still think it should be elevated to the status of a national dialogue:
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.
From at least the early 1990s there has been a relatively large group of thinkers advocating that the solution to the Atlantic Canada ‘problem’ was out-migration. The idea was simple. There are lots of jobs out West and Maritimers are a good fit. The classic win-win. Atlantic Canada gets lower unemployment and the West gets good workers.
The problem with this theory (one report commissioned by HRDC at the time suggested the Feds pay people to move) is that it didn’t give any thought to what it would leave behind in Atlantic Canada. It didn’t realize that the cost of public services doesn’t scale one-to-one with population changes. A community or region needs a certain base of people to have a high school, or a hospital, or a decent highway, or a decent airport, or whatever.
It didn’t take into consideration that it would leave primarily older people in Atlantic Canada. It didn’t factor in that as Canada as a whole becomes a multicultural place (four million new immigrants since the early 1990s), Atlantic Canad would be this alcove of older, white people.
In other words, we have created a bigger problem than we had before. At least in the early 1990s you could claim there was a ready workforce here for industries such as manufacturing, back offices and IT. Now, you really can’t. We could have counted on ‘growing our way’ out of the last recessions but it will be much harder now because the economic fundamentals – led by the lack of workforce – are not there.
I said back then, and I say now, that we should have focused on developing public policy tools could we use to reinvigorate the economy in Atlantic Canada – not focus on depopulation. And lest you jump to the corporate welfare card, that part of the pie is low on my list of concerns. Direct incentives are only a small piece of the value proposition for investing in a place like Moncton or Truro or Summerside.
I’m not greedy. The population of Canada grew by more than six million in the past 20 years. I’d settle for around 3% of that growth for New Brunswick. That seems reasonable. Do the math. That’s 180,000 people. Even the aggressive Self-Sufficiency plan was only calling for 100,000 new people 20 years.
If in 1990, the government had said we want our 180,000 by 2010 and if it developed a successful industry clustering strategy that led to new companies establishing here and national/international firms investing here, New Brunswick would have been a far different – and I believe better – place.
We would have been more multicultural (just like the rest of Canada). We would have reduced our reliance on federal transfers. We would have breathed new life into the entrepreneurial culture. Instead of just a small handful of growing communities, growth would have been more widespread.
Ambition matters. Did McKenna have ambition for the province? Did Lord? Did Graham? Does Alward? I suspect they think they did (do) but ambition is more than slogans and one line zingers. It’s about setting a clear vision and working towards it.