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Rural reality check
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Rural reality check
With its population dwindling, how can rural Newfoundland
and Labrador survive?
CBC Newfoundland and Labrador | Oct. 17, 2006

A first in Canadian demographics was recorded earlier this year in Newfoundland and Labrador: the number of deaths exceeded the number of births.

For the 12 months ending June 30, 2006, Statistics Canada reported, there were 4,368 births. By comparison, 4,494 deaths were recorded.

Demographers call this a natural balance — an equation in which births and deaths even one another out. Statistics Canada expects it to become a fact of life across Canada, although not for decades.

Births in Newfoundland and Labrador

This chart demonstrates how the number of births in Newfoundland and Labrador surged in the 1950s, but has been falling since the mid-1960s. (Source: Statistics Canada)

Vital statistics, births, deaths and marriages

In Newfoundland and Labrador — a place that used to log more than 15,000 births each year during the early 1960s — a plummeting birth rate has been a sad reality for more than a generation. Social mores have changed, with families desiring smaller families, but the greatest pressure has come from the exodus of young families, who now are bringing up children in other provinces.

The ravages of population change are nowhere felt more acutely than in rural communities, where double-digit population losses have been recorded from one census to the next. The details of the 2006 census will not be released until next spring, but community leaders and politicians already know what to expect.

"Most of our young people, as soon as they're finished the school, they're moving away … because there's no employment," said Betty Fitzgerald, the mayor of Bonavista, one of many communities on Newfoundland's northeast coast that have been decimated by the fisheries crisis.

"If you're going to lose your young people, then there's not going to be a birth rate in your communities, because all that's being left behind is people [who are] going to be a senior in the near future," Fitzgerald said.


Fisheries crisis drives workers west — again

Newfoundland and Labrador saw its greatest drops in population during the mid-1990s and later in that decade, when tens of thousands of people flocked to other provinces to live.

The issue has been brought to the fore again, though, amid one of the worst fishing seasons in years. Crab, which have sustained thousands of fisheries workers in the last decade, have lost much of their market value, and catches have been weak as well.

The magnet for many people has been Alberta, where the red-hot oil industry has provided new livelihoods for so many Newfoundlanders that Fort McMurray has enjoyed an informal reputation as "Newfoundland's third-largest city." Air Canada even added a direct route between Fort McMurray and St. John's in 2006.

Premier hopes trend will run its course

Premier Danny Williams knows there is little he can do to persuade rural workers to stay home and wait for traditional employment to return.

Premier Danny Williams
Premier Danny Williams

"If someone is working in a [fish] plant … and making $15,000 a year, and can go to Alberta and make $100,000, then that decision is a no-brainer," Williams said.

In the long run, Williams is hoping the trend of losing population will run its course, and that smaller — yet sustainable — rural communities can come into their own.

"There is going to be some outmigration, and in the short term, there's probably not going to be enough employment created to give [young people] jobs," Williams recently told CBC News.

Williams said he has simple advice for young people: "If you have to get national or international experience, take it. But eventually it's our long-term goal [that] we're going to build the capacity of the province, turn things around and have an environment here whereby skilled, educated young Newfoundlanders and Labradorians can return home to get a comparable … job at a good wage."

Must stop 'equating development with growing population'

That may sound like a pipe dream, but demographers say it is more than possible that Newfoundland and Labrador can not only survive but flourish with a smaller population. [Statistics Canada expects the province's population, which peaked in the 1991 census at about 568,000 residents, to drop to about 490,000 within another generation.]

Rob Greenwood
Rob Greenwood

"We need to get over, I believe, equating development with growing population," said Rob Greenwood, the director of the Leslie Harris Centre at Memorial University in St. John's.

"In our lifetimes, unless something turns around dramatically — and in birthrates and demographics, it doesn't — we're going to see smaller populations provincewide and especially in rural areas," said Greenwood, whose centre focuses on regional policy and development issues.

Greenwood said that's not necessarily a bad thing, though it does pose obstacles in delivering services to a declining population spread out over a wide geography.

"There's still lots of opportunities for sustainable economic activity in rural areas, but it's going to be done by fewer people," said Greenwood, who is also president of the Canadian Rural Revitalization Foundation.

"That's a real challenge for public policy, because we need to think about how do we get services for health care and education, how do we maintain quality of life and infrastructure, for sustainable, long-term communities — but that which have fewer people than they ever have had before."

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From CBC Radio:

During October 2006, CBC Radio explored the rural reality of Newfoundland and Labrador. Here are some highlights of our coverage, including some web specials:

Troubling demographics: Jeff Gilhooly, host of the St. John's Morning Show, speaks with John Gushue of CBC News Online about the continuing slide in the province's births, and what perils that may mean in outports and other small communities. (runs 8:16)

Rural forum: As part of CBC Radio's series, we held a public forum in Port au Choix on the island's west coast. Here, especially for this web feature, are extended highlights of that forum. (runs 41:12)

The premier's view: Mike Rossiter interviews Premier Danny Williams and reports on Williams's record of managing rural issues. (runs 6:04)

Are hubs the solution? Clarenville is booming while its neighbouring communities are struggling to survive. Rod Etheridge explores what's working in Clarenville's favour. (runs 6:56)

Rethinking the morning commute: One way that some rural communities can stay intact is through commuting to larger centres, or hubs. John Gushue of CBC News Online speaks with On The Go host Ted Blades. (runs 7:31)

Can tourism fix fishing communities? Todd O'Brien reports from Ferryland, which used to have a booming fishing business, and now is banking on a tourism-based future. (runs 6:35)

Learning from Trinity: As rural communities look to tourism for assistance, artists who have built a vibrant scene in Trinity have plenty to say about rural sustainability. Todd O'Brien has this report. (runs 6:52)

Hope from Labrador: In Labrador, there's optimism about the future, for several reasons. Kate Kyle explains why. (runs 5:41)

The highest bidder: Bernice Hillier goes to Parsons Pond, where there's a heated debate about whether selling off community land comes at too high a price. (runs 5:01)

What does it mean to be rural? Ivan Emke, an associate professor at Sir Wilfred Grenfell College in Corner Brook, addressed that issue in a public forum earlier this year. (runs 19:40)

Crosstalk: Rural issues: During our special coverage, Radio Noon turned over one of its Crosstalk call-in programs to rural issues. Host Anne Budgell's guest was Rob Greenwood of the Leslie Harris Centre at Memorial University. (runs 53:02)

From CBC Television:

Deanne Fleet of CBC Television prepared this feature on how Newfoundland and Labrador's rapidly changing demographics pose challenges for the decades ahead. (runs 5:51)

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