"I’m confident that large numbers of immigrants would stay:" Frank McKenna.

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He calls it New Brunswick’s “demographic deficit.”

Or the “demographic perfect storm.”

Or the “triple demographic whammy.”

For years, Constantine Passaris, a professor of economics at the University of New Brunswick, has been sounding the alarm.

“In its most rudimentary form the demographic deficit is about people,” Passaris writes in the Journal of New Brunswick Studies. “Too few are being born. Too many will be retiring. Most are living longer. Young New Brunswickers are compelled to pursue careers outside of our province. Not enough new immigrants are arriving…

“In my opinion, the demographic deficit is cause for greater alarm, and has the potential to trigger even more direct and collateral damage, than the fiscal deficit.”

He wrote those words three years ago, but he is even more concerned about the situation today.

Unless the province corrects its demographic course, birth rates will continue to decline, the population will continue to shrink just as the baby boomers, the largest portion of the New Brunswick population, begin to retire. Meanwhile, young people will continue to leave the province to find work while immigration continues to lag behind other jurisdictions in Canada.

Passaris calls the arrival of hundreds of Syrian refugees in New Brunswick “a blessing.” Not a solution, but a step forward.

New Brunswick’s population decline is often presented as part of a narrative of young people leaving the province to find work elsewhere in the country.

However, this narrative is incomplete, for it fails to take into account how Canada as a whole depends on immigration for population growth.

With a fertility rate of 1.67, far lower than the replacement level of 2.1, Canada can’t increase or even maintain its population without immigration. Between 2006 and 2011, Canada’s population grew 5.9 per cent, and two thirds of this growth was from international immigration.

During the next two decades, immigration will account for more than 80 per cent of Canada’s overall population growth.

The problem is, New Brunswick hasn’t been keeping pace in attracting and retaining newcomers.

New Brunswick’s population grew by only half of Canada’s rate between 2006 and 2011. And just one in 33 New Brunswickers is an immigrant, compared to one in five in other regions of Canada.

Former New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna has also been sounding the alarm about the demographic deficit throughout Atlantic Canada, and he too regards the arrival of new families from Syria as an opportunity not only to bring in new people, but also to reconsider immigration policies that will direct more newcomers to areas of the country that need them most, such as New Brunswick.

“We do not need more federal programs or federal money,” McKenna wrote recently in the Globe and Mail. “We need people. But the status quo immigration system won’t get the job done…

“More than 70 per cent of new Canadians settle in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. Atlantic Canada receives only about 2.5 per cent of immigrants. Without a larger base, it’s impossible to attract an immigrant population. It’s a continually reinforcing negative cycle…

“We need a new program dedicated to the needs of Atlantic Canada.”

Tony Tremblay, Canada Research Chair in New Brunswick Studies at St. Thomas University, agrees with McKenna.

“There is ample evidence that suggests New Brunswick has not been well served by federalism, and one area that illustrates this is immigration,” Tremblay says. “If we are struggling with outmigration – and we are, and have been for 150 years – then why shouldn’t a disproportionate number of Syrian refugees settle in the Maritime provinces?”

Populations can be represented in a pyramid shaped graph. A healthy population pyramid has a wide base, representing the younger demographic. The middle is a little narrower, and represents the working population. The point at the top of the pyramid is the retired population. In New Brunswick, the population pyramid is more “T” shaped, with a wide top and a middle and bottom about the same width.

One of the problems with a “T” shaped population graph is health care costs. In the next year, the New Brunswick government will spend more than $11,000 a year on health care for each citizen over 65, but $6,000 on each of those under 45. More than half of the $2.6 billion healthcare budget will be spent servicing the needs of 20 per cent of the 65 and older group.

“Immigration appears to be the only viable solution,” Passaris says. “But it is a solution that requires additional emphasis in settlement and economic opportunities for it to be a viable long-term solution.”

Passaris says the province must focus on retaining newcomers who do settle in New Brunswick by developing policies that allow them to integrate economically and socially as soon as possible,

“New Brunswick’s demographic correction over the next few decades will rely increasingly on international immigration,” he writes.

“We need a strategic demographic plan that will reverse the downward trend… and enhance New Brunswick’s share of international immigration.”

Tremblay says there is a myth that New Brunswick is not welcoming or accommodating to newcomers.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” he says. “New Brunswick’s communities are some of the most generous and welcoming communities in the country, as anyone who has grown up in one of those communities will attest. The longer the myth persists, the longer regions of the country like the Maritimes are kept down.”

Passaris says New Brunswick’s intentions are good, but aren’t yet yielding the best results.

“There is a level of resistance, but most people are accepting,” he says. “But that does not mean we should be negligent in terms of increasing our efforts to advance public education on the economic and social benefits of immigration, because that is an ongoing dialogue.”

McKenna has proposed various policy options, including a social contract that would require immigrants to live in an area of the country for a set period of time. There are varying opinions on the viability of such a policy. Mainly, McKenna wants the federal government to understand the issue and respond with creative solutions.

“Atlantic Canada is a warm and welcoming place to live,” he writes. “I’m confident that large numbers of immigrants would stay, refreshing our population base and providing a new energy to our economy.”

"New Brunswick’s communities are some of the most generous and welcoming communities in the country:" Tony Tremblay. Photo courtesy of St. Thomas University.
“New Brunswick’s communities are some of the most generous and welcoming communities in the country:” Tony Tremblay. Photo courtesy of St. Thomas University.

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