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Report predicts plummeting population for rural Newfoundland and Labrador

Low birth rates, the fastest-aging population in the country and a massive migration of young people out of remote communities contribute to the anticipated drop.

Grim numbers from MUN's Harris Centre forecast drop of up to 40 per cent

The report predicts that many rural communities will become much smaller over the next couple of decades. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

According to a new study, the population of Newfoundland and Labrador will be much older and much smaller by 2036.

Some towns may vanish altogether.

"Smaller communities are, in the next 20 years, going to disappear," said Keith Storey, a geography professor at Memorial University who heads up the Harris Centre's Population Project.

"We cannot save everything everywhere," he said.

The population of Newfoundland and Labrador is not only shrinking. It's getting older. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

The report, the second of two studies from the centre forecasting a drastic population decline across rural parts of the province, was presented Thursday at Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador offices.

Its projections combine the province's birth and death rates with its past patterns of in- and out-migration to get a look at who will be living here two decades on.

'Every rural municipality out there is afraid'

According to the numbers, the province's population will drop by about eight per cent. That's just over 41,000 people.

The average age will bump up from 43 to 48, compared to the average Canadian who is now 41.

Some places, like River of Ponds and Roddickton on the Northern Peninsula, will see their population plummet by 40 per cent. The average resident there will be 54 years old.

Many other towns will shrink by 30 per cent, the report predicts: Musgrave Harbour, the Lewisporte and Twillingate region, the Gander Bay and Fogo Island area, and the south coast.

The numbers are bleak and Rob Greenwood, left, and Keith Storey, right, say towns need strategies to prepare for the future. (Gary Locke/CBC)

The problems aren't all rural.

The Harris Centre predicts that the Corner Brook area will have 17 per cent fewer people by 2036, and the average person there will be 50. The population in Grand Falls-Windsor, and in the Norris Arm area, will drop by 21 per cent and citizens will be, on average, 51.

"Every rural municipality out there is afraid," said Tony Keats, mayor of Dover, which is north of Gambo.

A natural resettlement?

The decline is the result of low birth rates, a rapidly aging population — Newfoundland and Labrador is aging faster than any other province in the country — and young people leaving rural areas to find work.

Storey likens that migration to a "naturally occurring" process of resettlement.

The report from the Harris Centre says there will be fewer children living in rural communities. (CBC)

But there is a bright spot: the Northeast Avalon's population is expected to jump by 15 per cent.

Jamie Ward, who co-authored the report, said this is because many of the young people leaving rural Newfoundland are heading for St. John's.

A call to action

Harris Centre director Rob Greenwood said the grim numbers present "difficult news," but should serve as inspiration to municipal governments to come together and work toward solutions.

"We will succeed if we face these realities with optimism and a collaborative approach," he said.

We cannot afford to continue as usual.- Keith Storey

The Harris Centre will look for funding to put together strategies to make the best of the situation.

Rural Newfoundland and Labrador needs more regional governments and smarter approaches to industry and productivity, said Greenwood.

The population of the northeast Avalon is expected to jump by 15 per cent. (Greg Johnson/Facebook)
Education and health care in remote areas also need immediate solutions. Storey said the high turnover of doctors, nurses and teachers in these areas is "not healthy."

According to Greenwood, the first step is the political will to face the numbers. But when it comes to government, Greenwood said the population reports have so far "fallen on deaf ears."

Storey agreed.

"We cannot afford to continue as usual," he said. "And it would be unacceptable to do nothing."

Jill Curran started Lighthouse Picnics in Ferryland 15 years ago. She would like to think future generations could still make a living in places like Ferryland, and thinks the key is for people to come together to offer community services instead of always depending on government. (CBC)

In Ferryland on the southern short of Newfoundland's Avalon Peninsula, Jill Curran wonders if her Grade 3 and Kindergarten sons will be able to make a living there the way she did.

Curran moved back to her rural hometown and started a picnic catering business, Lighthouse Picnics, in Ferryland 15 years ago, despite the continuing decline of the town's population. She would like to think her sons could still have a life here when they're older.

"I'm not going to be naive in saying that they will," she said. "My children have class sizes of 11 and 14. I went to the same school and had class sizes of 50 and 60."