Nova Scotia

Rise again: Cape Breton population grows after more than 20 years of decline

After 20 years of decline, Cape Breton Island's population grew last year and that drove down the chronically high unemployment rate for the first time since 2008, according to the latest figures from Statistics Canada.

International students at CBU boost population, improve unemployment rate, according to StatsCan

Cape Breton Regional Municipality is considering adding electric buses to its diesel fleet, but there is some concern about the cost of switching over. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

Cape Breton Island's population grew in 2019 after more than 20 years of declines and the unemployment rate dropped, largely due to the international student population at Cape Breton University.

Thomas Storring, director of economics and statistics for Nova Scotia's Finance Department, said the latest Statistics Canada numbers show the university students had a significant impact, mostly in Cape Breton Regional Municipality.

"There was an increase of 2,249 in net non-permanent residents in CBRM and, just to put that in context, the increase in Halifax was 1,481, so it's a very large jump," Storring said.

Non-permanent residents generally include temporary foreign workers and international students. Last year, CBU's international student population grew by about 3,500.

"That's how much this means to the overall population in Cape Breton, that that's actually pushing the population up," Storring said.

The island's total population rose by 1,491 people last year to 134,850 driven mostly by growth in CBRM, Storring said.

The population on Cape Breton Island grew last year, reversing year-over-year declines going back more than two decades, according to the latest Statistics Canada figures. (Nova Scotia Department of Finance)

"In the other three counties, there had been population declines ongoing for many years, but particularly in Richmond and Victoria Counties, the pace of population decline has really slowed," he said.

"It's not rising, but it's not declining as fast either, and a similar pattern is observed in Inverness, though there's a little bit of decline in population there, as well."

At the same time, the unemployment rate fell from 15.1 per cent to 13.3 per cent, its lowest level since 2008.

"In this case, in 2019, the improvement in the unemployment rate happened because Cape Breton's employment grew faster than its labour force," Storring said.

Last year, Cape Breton's unemployment rate hit its lowest level since 2008, thanks to population growth driven mostly by international students, says provincial statistician Thomas Storring. (Nova Scotia Department of Finance)

Last year was the first time since 2008 that the number of jobs and the available workforce grew in the same year, he said.

Employment increased by 5.6 per cent and the labour force grew by 3.4 per cent in 2019.

Storring said those numbers were also driven by the economic impact of thousands of international students.

"Just the fact that they are in the community and they require services and housing, as well, so they can have employment impacts beyond their own employment," he said.

Strain on services

The rapid population growth has not been without its challenges. Cape Breton Transit has had to add buses, drivers and routes to accommodate new riders. 

Meanwhile, the Cape Breton Partnership reported this week that the number of immigrants permanently calling the island home also grew last year.

According to the organization, 385 new permanent residents moved to Cape Breton, with 315 of those in CBRM.

That is nearly double the number of immigrants who moved to the island in 2017.

Whether last year was a blip or the start of a trend depends on immigration and international students, Storring said.

CBU spokesperson Becky Chisholm says a recent study showed international students each add about $36,000 to the economy. So, for Cape Breton, that's about $128 million. (Submitted by Becky Chisholm)

Becky Chisholm, director of communications for Cape Breton University, said total enrolment is about 5,500 and that's expected to remain stable for now.

"I think right now we're focusing on investments to stay competitive in the market, both internationally and domestically, so I think that's the priority, and then to maintain a target of between 5,000 and 5,500," she said.

A recent study showed international students each add about $36,000 to a local economy. So, for Cape Breton, that impact has been about $128 million, Chisholm said.

"I think CBU has always had a role within the community," she said.

"We're deeply connected to Cape Breton Island so that ripple effect is definitely a positive."



Tom Ayers


Tom Ayers has been a reporter and editor for 37 years. He has spent the last 19 covering Cape Breton and Nova Scotia stories. You can reach him at


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Account Holder

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?