After decades of losing its young people to the lure of high-paying work in Ontario and Western Canada, the Atlantic region is showing signs of having turned things around, the latest census figures show.

Despite the ever-present prospect of better jobs outside the region, the four Atlantic provinces managed to grow their ranks during the past five years by placing a greater emphasis on attracting and retaining immigrants from abroad.

Census figures released Wednesday show Eastern Canada with a growth rate of 1.9 per cent, led by Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick at 3.2 per cent and 2.9 per cent, respectively.

Growth was modestly higher in Nova Scotia — 0.9 per cent, up from 0.6 for the previous five-year period.

Even Newfoundland and Labrador, long a perennial population loser, managed to post its first positive growth rate since 1986 —1.8 per cent.

Some, of course, come for love, not money.

Lured from her native China by the charms of Adam White, a foreign exchange student from Lower Sackville, N.S., Lurace Lee arrived last year armed with two university degrees, three years of work experience at an aerospace firm in Beijing and a firm grasp of English.

She was exactly what Canada's long-suffering Atlantic provinces had been looking for.

Before leaving China, Lee visited discussion sites on the Internet that were teeming with Chinese migrants abuzz about the Atlantic provinces — particularly Prince Edward Island and its wildly successful immigrant nominee program.

"I went a lot to these websites to talk to other people and share opinions," Lee said. "A lot of people were talking about the P.E.I. program."

P.E.I. attracted more than 2,500 new immigrants in 2010, up from fewer than 500 in 2005.

Both Nova Scotia and New Brunswick attracted more than 2,000 immigrants in 2010.

Newfoundland and Labrador was fourth at about 700 — a figure that hasn't changed much in the past 20 years.

Improved retention

What's more, they're staying longer than they used to, said Ather Akbari, a professor of economics at Saint Mary's University in Halifax.

"All of the Atlantic provinces have been successful at retaining immigrants," Akbari said, citing the example of Nova Scotia, where the retention rate jumped to 65 per cent by 2007, up from 40 per cent only a few years earlier.

"More of the immigrants coming to this region are job-focused in that they have a job before coming here. The provincial nominee programs have played an important role in this."

Lee knew going in that finding work in Halifax would be difficult.

"Even for local people, it's not easy to find your ideal job," she said. "Nova Scotia is a small province."

But the province was ready to help. She took classes at Immigration Settlement and Integration Services, where she improved her English, learned about resumes and cover letters and received training in basic accounting.

And she networked, mainly with the help of the Greater Halifax Partnership, which offers several programs to help immigrants prosper.

While Nova Scotia has welcomed immigrants for centuries, it was only in 2005 that the province introduced a formal strategy to draw more people to the province.

Last April, Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter said his government planned to attract 7,200 immigrants a year by 2020, up from the current goal of 3,600. To do that, he added $790,000 to the province's $5.1-million immigration budget.

In December, all four Atlantic premiers called on Ottawa to increase the caps on each province's nominee program.

In New Brunswick, the province's Population Growth Secretariat set a goal in 2008 of growing the population by 100,000 by 2026.

By 2009, the secretariat reported it had almost reached its first interim goal of adding 6,000 residents that year alone.

Immigration program problems

But the process of boosting the region's population has not come easily. All of the Maritime provinces have had problems with their nominee programs, including allegations of mismanagement and bribery.

The region is also still dealing with the legacy of a declining birth rate.

Today, Nova Scotia has the oldest population in Atlantic Canada.

By 2019, the province's working age population — those from 18 to 64 — is expected to shrink by 36,000. Business leaders have long complained they can't find enough skilled workers to fill jobs.

However, there are signs of further change on the demographic front.

As Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador prepare to tackle some large industrial projects, there are signs that the long-standing problem of out-migration is finally slowing down, thanks to a stronger economy.

In October, Nova Scotia won a $25-billion federal contract to build Canada's next fleet of warships over 30 years, creating about 11,000 jobs for the region. Last month, the province crowed about awarding Shell Canada offshore exploration rights under a $970-million, six-year agreement.

Meanwhile, New Brunswick's onshore natural gas industry is poised for growth as exploration continues for conventional sources and shale gas deposits. There's also talk of expanding the province's potash industry.

And though Newfoundland hasn't attracted immigrants the same way its neighbours do, a booming offshore oil and gas industry has fuelled strong job creation and economic growth.

The province is also counting on a flood of jobs from a tentatively approved plan to build the $6.2-billion Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project in Labrador. Under the plan, Halifax-based Emera Inc. would pay for a subsea-transmission link between Nova Scotia and Newfoundland at a cost of $1.2 billion.

"That will also play an important role in keeping people here," Akbari said. "The policies and initiatives that have been adopted by the governments…have played an important role in retaining people."

The flow of people leaving for greener pastures slowed after the recession started constraining oilpatch growth in 2008, said Patrick Brannon, a research analyst at the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council.

"A lot of people did come back from Alberta," Brannon said, citing Atlantic Canada's net increase of 3,000 people from other provinces in 2009. Out-migration has been on the rise since then, though not at the rate seen during the Alberta oil boom in 2006, he added.

"The pace of economic activity in the Maritimes has been very modest in comparison to some of the western provinces," he said.

"Newfoundland has been the exception, where there has been some big projects going on there."

As for Lee, she and her new husband plan to stay in Nova Scotia, where a good job and the natural setting are big draws.

"There's a lot of nature around…and the people are more friendly," she said. "So I prefer it here."