Most people, even smart folks, put down what is happening in Northern New Brunswick to a kind of natural urbanization – a migration to the big cities where the work is. They look at Brazil or Kenya and think that is what is going on here.
The truth is that Canada’s rural population has been rising steadily since 1971. It’s up by well over a million people in that time frame. Sure the urban population has grown considerably faster but it has not been at the expense of rural population decline. Even New Brunswick’s rural population is up since 1971 – by around 70,000 persons.
In addition, northern New Brunswick has urban populations. In fact, there are about 70,000 people in Northern New Brunswick living in areas Statistics Canada defines as urban.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. New Brunswick’s lack of urbanity is primarily due to the fact that its urban centres have not attracted immigrants in any substantial way for decades. If you look at Ontario, its urban growth is not due to rural decline. It’s due to urban growth rates outpacing (by a large margin) rural population growth.
Northern New Brunswick’s economic problems are not a demographic issue or a natural migration to the ‘cities’ or any other baloney. It’s problems – just like NB as a whole – are based on a lack of imagination. In the 1850s, the Chamber of Commerce in the City of Pittsburgh set up a team whose mandate was to promote Pittsburgh as a place for new investment. They had a team of folks trying to convince companies to invest there. Deliberate attempts to foster economic growth -led by both the private and public sectors – has been going on for centuries.
Our approach in Northern New Brunswick has been trying to squeeze blood out of a turnip. We take an area that has lost its large, anchor companies – while it is shedding investment and people – and hope that by injecting a few public dollars in local firms they will create enough new economic activity to overcome the loss. Wrong.
For those in the three slightly larger urban areas (Fredericton is only about 20k or so larger than Bathurst – a rounding error in Toronto) who think we are in some kind of inevitable urbanization where notherners move to the south – get ready. If current trends persist, after the north has emptied into the south, the south will empty into the rest of Canada. The folks in Toronto (such as Richard Florida) will say this is an inevitable urbanization – just like those in Moncton say about the Bathurst migration to that city now.
Urbanization is key to New Brunswick’s economic future – I have said this for 20 years. But it doesn’t have to come by a couple of slightly larger urbans cannibalizating the population of slightly smaller urbans.
Let’s focus on growing NB. Let’s focus on attracting immigrants and investment. Let’s allow each region of the province to focus on its strengths and invest in those strengths and then let’s promote this place far and wide. Sure certain areas will grow faster than others. Sure, some areas will continue to shed population. I know of very few examples where all regions within a province or state are growing strongly (Alberta is one example, however).
Let’s have this conversation. Let’s talk about the reasons why migration happens. Let’s’ pontificate long and hard about all the social and demographic issues but let’s not confuse some faux urbanization excuse with New Brunswick’s real long term problem – a systemic lack of business investment.