Nfld. & Labrador

Census may yield clues on population decline

Some families in Newfoundland and Labrador are stuffing census returns into envelopes even as they pack their worldly possessions into moving boxes.

Some families in Newfoundland and Labrador are stuffing census returns into envelopes even as they pack their worldly possessions into moving boxes.

"Outmigration" – the awkward yet potent word used for years to describe population loss in the province – is bound to be a factor in the 2006 census results.

Householders had until Tuesday to respond to the census, which is conducted every five years.

Provincial government officials expect the census to show a mild – perhaps even insignificant – decline in the population overall.

The community-by-community picture, however, could be entirely different, particularly in coastal communities that traditionally relied on a fishing industry that no longer can employ them.

"We have fathers going away finding work, and I'm hearing that once this [school year] is concluded, they're going to be taking their entire family with them," said Gordon Brockerville, principal of Pearce junior high school in Burin.

On the Burin Peninsula, towns have already lost about 22 per cent of their population over the past 15 years. A projection by the provincial government's Rural Secretariat indicated the region's population could plunge by a further 16 per cent – the steepest decline in the province – by 2019.

"I'm astounded … this is going to have a tremendous effect on all kinds of businesses that we here, and on our school populations," Brockerville said.

Pearce junior high is already scheduled to close in 2009, just one of many schools poised to shut or be renovated as the province copes with declining enrolments.

Scenarios developed by the provincial government show that even best-case circumstances will involve fewer school children.

Meanwhile, the Rural Secretariat's own projections show that planners expect the population to continue to drop in almost all parts of Newfoundland and Labrador. The overall population is expected to drop about three per cent, and outside of St. John's, only Labrador is expected to add to its population – and even then, by just 0.4 per cent.

Moving away from home has been a fact of life for Newfoundlanders for decades – former premier Joseph R. Smallwood organized a Come Home Year in 1966 – but the population has been dropping only since the 1990s.

Moratorium launched wave of outmigration

The pivotal moment was the 1992 declaration of the first northern cod moratorium, which made the largest cod fishery in Canada illegal and effectively put 20,000 people out of work.

That year, Statistics Canada estimated the provincial population as 580,029.

The population is now estimated as 514,409, StatsCan reported earlier this year, for a cumulative drop of more than 11 per cent.

Reports of adults moving away to find work have been more common than usual this year, in part because the crab fishery – the sole salvation in the fishing industry in recent years – is on the rocks.

In one week in April alone, about 30 people from Harbour Breton, a fishing community on Newfoundland's south coast, moved to find work at a fish plant in New Brunswick.

By far, though, the greatest magnet has been Alberta, where the oilsands industry in Fort McMurray has been recruiting Newfoundlanders for well over a generation. Earlier this year, Air Canada launched a non-stop route between St. John's and Fort McMurray.

Ford Rumbolt, mayor of the southern Labrador community of Mary's Harbour, is also worried by an exodus of workers from his region to Alberta.

He said so many have left for work on the mainland already that the local crab plant is having trouble finding workers.

"I guess when you get a couple out there, it entices a few more to go as well," Rumbolt said. "So what is going to happen to the community [in] the years to come? Who is going to be here to run the community and upkeep the community?"

Calvin Newman

Calvin Newman commutes daily from the rural community of Makinsons to St. John's (CBC)

The region containing St. John's is also expected to lose population, although the city itself is expected to gain. Indeed, two economies are emerging in the province: a vibrant city economy infused with cash from the offshore oil industry, and a troubled rural economy dogged by setbacks in resource industries.

For many families, moving away has meant moving to St. John's. However, not a few decide to stay put, and commute.

"You always get tired of it," said Calvin Norman, who makes a daily trek of about 80 kilometres to St. John's from his home in Makinsons, a small community in Conception Bay.

"But what can you do? You'd have to sell and move to town, and I don't like that, either."

Trend slowing down: Sullivan

In the face of such dire warnings, Finance Minister Loyola Sullivan is not expecting Newfoundland and Labrador to flounder too much more than it already has.

Loyola Sullivan

Loyola Sullivan

"We've slowed down the bleeding of outmigration, but we haven't stopped it," said Sullivan.

"I'm confident in the future we'll start to see turnarounds in our population decline, but we're not predicting that in the short- to medium-term."

Among other things, the census provides important data used for a wide variety of programs, including equalization and federal transfers, in which funding is determined on a per-capita basis.

However, Sullivan said he does not expect any significant changes to federal transfers after the census, because estimates are factored in every year.

Jim Feehan, an economics professor at Memorial University and a member of a StatsCan advisory council, said information collected by this year's census will influence many services, especially in health care and education.

"If we understate or underestimate the true number of people we have in the province, we also would get a consequent lessening of the transfer payments from Ottawa that we're entitled to," Feehan said.

"[But] it's not just transfer payments from Ottawa. It's really about understanding the current state of Newfoundland society and how it's been changing over time."