Buried report offers insight on why expats leave N.L. — and why they'd return

Expat Newfoundlanders and Labradorians told the government why so many of them left the province. Then the government kept the report to themselves.

Former residents explained why they left the province, but the report wasn't released

Jenn Thornhill Verma wrote about the survey for The Independent. (Submitted by Jenn Thornhill Verma)

In spring 2018, the provincial government asked expatriate Newfoundlanders and Labradorians to fill out a survey that they hoped would garner 300 responses. The survey got 10 times that number of responses. Then the government buried it.


The survey, requested by the Office of Immigration and Multiculturalism, asked expats what, if anything, would make them decide to move home.

The results arrived in December but the government didn't release them until May, and then only after the Official Opposition filed an access to information request.

Job opportunities, or a lack of them, were a major factor for Newfoundland and Labrador expats who responded to the survey. (CBC )

Jennifer Thornhill Verma, one of the expats who responded, wrote a two-part article about the survey for the Independent. When she reviewed the survey responses after it was finally released, she found that a lot of young people want to move back to the province but see several obstacles in their way.

"Twelve thousand people touched that survey," Verma said.

"Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are always interested in coming back home, so I think it's not surprising to me altogether, but at the same time, they got tenfold what they were hoping to get in terms of responses."

Concerns about job opportunities

Most of the 12,000 total responses received were discarded by the company conducting the survey, for various reasons. That left the survey with 3,460 respondents, along with 60 one-to-one interviews.

What did the survey find? Among other things:

  • Seventy per cent of the expats who responded were younger than 34.
  • Nearly 60 per cent make more than $100,000 per year.
  • Ninety per cent live elsewhere in Canada.
  • The respondents tended to be well educated.

Jobs were a serious concern for the respondents, almost half of whom left the province for better work opportunities. When they left, just 65 per cent had jobs; now 95 per cent of the expats are employed.

"If there were better (job) opportunities, 50 per cent of them said they'd return," Verma said. 

But the concerns expressed in the survey by Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who live away weren't limited to employment. The respondents also talked about quality of life issues: better services for health care, education, public transportation; more leisure and cultural options; a lower cost of living.

Verma herself left after doing a graduate degree at Memorial. 

"I think a big strategy is youth retention … integrating career learning into education at all levels, and that was something that had come out as a solution." 

Cooperative learning and work experiences, across all educational disciplines can help people network and ultimately stay in the province, she said.

Economic worries

Then there's the nuts and bolts of the provincial economic outlook.

Expats said that Newfoundland and Labrador's reliance on oil and gas made for a volatile outlook. Nick Mercer, a PhD student studying renewable energy policy at the University of Waterloo and co-chair of De-Carbonize NL, told her the "province has a megaproject mentality" that leads itself to the boom-and-bust pattern. This is something respondents found unpredictable and disconcerting. 

To Verma, this suggests a need for "more entrepreneur support," mentorship and investment that connects "startup owners with established business owners."

The final report mentions similar retention programs in places like Israel and Tasmania. Some places offer tax breaks and other incentives. But the report cautions that local solutions are needed.

Despite their other concerns, family was a motivating factor for respondents who wished to return to the province.

Ultimately, what may drive expats above all is family.

"A third said that they'd love to be closer to mom and dad," Verma said. It's the thing most likely to bring people home, after better job opportunities.

"That is an incentive to come home. We have ties here, we have family here."

The survey results seem, by all appearances, to be a sober, clear-eyed look at the economic realities of out-migration. So why was it buried? 

"That's a bit puzzling to me, I have to say," Verma said. 

She spoke with the minister, Bernard Davis, who seemed "excited" to get the report back, to have "evidenced based information of a demographic, 19 to 44 year olds, that's the demographic that could potentially move back here and take up employment and work here for years to come… but it's a puzzler to me why they wouldn't simply have released it."

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


  • A previous version of this article referred to Nick Mercer as a Newfoundland and Labrador expat. In fact, he is from Nova Scotia and was interviewed in his capacity as a PhD student in renewable energy policy.
    Aug 05, 2019 11:14 AM NT


Luke Quinton


Luke Quinton is a writer and audio producer in St. John's, who returned to N.L. after a decade in Austin, Tex. His documentaries have appeared on the podcasts 99% Invisible and Snap Judgement, and on radio for the BBC, CBC and NPR. He's written on architecture and the arts for Dwell, Maclean's, the Globe and Mail, Gramophone and Eater.

With files from Zach Goudie