Wednesday, June 20, 2007

All NL all the time

An embarrassment of riches today: four pieces in the Globe and Mail this morning on NL and the issues facing it. And who says we get no attention from the national media?

One comes out of the NOIA oil industry conference and covers his speech ('No compromise on Hebron: Williams Newfoundland Premier says he won't yield to pressure and sign 'a deal for the sake of a deal'). Related to that, the national media are responding to Ottawa's release the text of NRCAN Minister Gary Lunn's broadside(?) he was supposed to unleash on Premier Williams until Lunn's plane turned back because of fog.

The third outlines Premier MacDonald's and John Crosbie's appearance in front of the Senate and their opposition to the federal budget do to its Atlantic Accord provisions.

Finally, Jefferey Simpson's column on NL outmigration. It makes for sobering reading. Simpson will be speaking at NOIA today and tomorrow. Here's the text.


Buffeted by the winds of the great migration
JEFFREY SIMPSON, June 20, 2007

ST. JOHN'S -- Could anybody in Ontario imagine their province losing 1.5-million people in the past 15 years? Could anybody in British Columbia get their mind around their province shrinking by 500,000 people since 1991?

Yet a decline of commensurate size happened in Newfoundland. Since 1991, its population fell by 12 per cent, or about 70,000 people.

The very young and the very old didn't leave. Young and middle-aged adults did - the people who work, pay taxes, raise families, support others. The decline was greatest after the cod moratorium, but it persists today. And it will continue. Today's population is about 510,000. Under the best scenario, it will fall to 495,000 by 2020; under the worst, 460,000.

More difficult still, the population is aging, quickly. The entire Canadian population's demographic profile is getting older, but Newfoundland's is getting older faster. In a generation, Newfoundland has gone from having the country's youngest population profile to its oldest. In the 1970s, Newfoundland had the country's highest birth rate. It now has the lowest, courtesy of people of child-rearing age having left.

For decades, politicians of all stripes, and at both levels of government, have pledged to revive rural Newfoundland. These promises continue. There are pockets of modest revival, sometimes because people who went to Alberta or other places "away" came back with money. These are the exceptions, in fact, if not in rhetoric.

Agencies, task forces, royal commissions, studies, programs and billions of dollars have been thrown at the problem. The political culture of the province requires the suspension of belief, a culture no political figure dares challenge.

Meanwhile, here is what is happening - because people took rational decisions in their own self-interest - and what is projected to occur.

According to provincial statistics, of the province's 20 "economic zones," only two have kept steady populations: the Avalon peninsula that encompasses St. John's, and northern Labrador with its aboriginal peoples. Every other one has lost people in the past 15 years, with the decline ranging from 12 to 30 per cent.

The reporting of the raw numbers of decline doesn't tell the whole story because it misses who is left behind.

Take the southwest corner, Stephenville and Port aux Basques. In 1986, it had 15,200 people aged 1 to 19, but only 3,100 people over 65. The ratio then was five young people to every senior. Today the ratio is 3 to 2, and by 2020 it will be about 1 to 2, or about 4,000 young people for almost 8,000 seniors.

Another example: the Burin peninsula on the south coast. In 1986, it had 11,600 people under 19 and 2,500 seniors, for a ratio of about 4.5 to 1. By 2020 it will be about 3 to 4, with 2,800 young people and 4,300 seniors.

Today's median age is 41. By 2020, it will be about 49, but much higher in the rural areas. In 2006, for the first time, Newfoundland recorded more deaths than births, the only province where that occurred. Said the province's finance department, "there appears to be no relief in the foreseeable future for demographic issues stemming from declining births and rising deaths."

The depopulation of rural Newfoundland, in the face of every policy to arrest it, leaves the province with big delivery and spending problems.

A rapidly aging population means higher health-care costs. Outports, even shrunken ones, still need roads plowed, children educated, police on call, but the economy of scale of providing those services grows worse.

Facing these facts, and they are facts, is politically very hard. It is easier to speak of hope, revival, return, and to offer another plan. It is a completely nefarious myth that Newfoundlanders do not wish to work. Newfoundlanders would not have left, and be leaving, in such great numbers if they were shifters.

The work, however, is not there in large swaths of the province. People know it. But governments cannot admit it, and so maintain policies designed to blow against, rather than with, the winds of the great migration.

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