"We can't allow things that are inaccurate to stand." — The Word of Our Dan, February 19, 2008.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Census sensibilities I

Today's census figures and maps (maps! maps!!!) provide a lot of food for thought. But a smorgasbord like that takes some prep work. So, for now, a foretaste:

Between 1996 and 2001, almost every census division in Atlantic Canada and rural Quebec east of the Beauce experienced population decline. It's strange that no one has yet come up with a collective term for this region; Québec maritime has a lot in common with Atlantic Canada. For now, let's call it the Atlantic-Laurentian region.

In many cases — most notably rural Newfoundland, but also Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia's Eastern Shore, the Acadian coast of New Brunswick, Gaspé, and the Quebec North Shore — the decline was drastic, often -10% to -20%.

The exceptions were southwestern New Brunswick, central PEI, and mainland Nova Scotia in Halifax and three of the four counties which border it (Guysborough not included).

The latest figures show an interesting decelleration of that rural population decline. It's still happening, and it's still happening at a rapid pace. But it's happening at perhaps half or less of the rate between 1996 and 2001. That's partially because the 1996-2001 period was so brutal for rural economies. And, according to popular wisdom, it's still pretty brutal out there.

Most of the Atlantic-Laurentian census divisions which experienced population decline in the previous five-year census interval continued to suffer population loss, whether through net outmigration, decreased natural increase (or even natural decline), or both.

But there are exceptions: western PEI, roughly corrsponding to the federal riding of Egmont, has reversed the trend. So has Kent county, in the heart of New Brunswick's Acadian region; King's county in the Annapolis Valley, and, in eastern Quebec, the Rivière-du-Loup, Rimouski, and La Mitis regions.

And, especially, these four: the Magdalen Islands, which depends, or at least depended on the fishery just as heavily as any part of rural Newfoundland, grew by 2.1% after a staggering 7.1% loss in the previous census period. NL Census Division 10 — everyone else calls it the Avalon Peninsula, why can't StatsCan? — shrank by 3.4% during the previous intercensal, but grew by 2.3% during this latest one. Division 5 — Corner Brook and the Humber Valley; how about calling it Humber? — plunged 8.7% in the previous census, and scored growth, modest, but growth, of 0.8% this time around. And Division 6 — the area of central Newfoundland for which the name Exploits would be perfect — turned a 7.4% loss into break-even. The census population in 2006, 36,208, is exactly what it was in 2001.

On the other hand, rural regions such as Antigonish county in NS, and much of southwestern New Brunswick and the Saint John Valley, turned 1996-2001 population growth into decline over the past five years.

There are many lessons that can be learned by inter-jurisdictional studies, exchanges, and, if they absolutely must be undertaken, junkets.

But if there's anything that the last two census have shown, or should have shown, people in Newfoundland and Labrador, it's this: the demographic trends and challenges that face the province are exactly the same as those facing other parts of Canada, particularly those parts of Canada that lie beyond the eastern limits of the Québec and Lévis transit systems.

The interesting questions to ask would be, what is it about small urban areas, even as small as Corner Brook, Rimouski, or Charlottetown, that have allowed them to buck or turn the demographic tides? How important is proximity to these small urban centres? What has caused the demographic turnaround in places like the Magdalen Islands, western PEI, Kent County, and the eastern Annapolis Valley? What are the similarities and differences with the Trans-Canada Highway axis in Newfoundland which is doing better than areas further afield? On the other hand, what has caused a reversal of fortune in areas like Antigonish and Charlotte counties?

And above all else, what is driving the slowing in the rate of rural decline, not just in some parts of rural Newfoundland and Labrador, but throughout that larger Atlantic-Laurentian region? If, as Doug May hypothesises, it's a case of trans-continental commuting, then what's with the vitriol and venom that Danny Williams and others spat at Air Canada or any other airline whose efforts to develop that market have made that phenomenon possible in the first place?

Examining these kinds of questions domestically, comparing Newfoundland and Labrador's demographic and economic picture to neighbouring regions, within our own country, which have many points of similarities along side the points of difference, would be a worthy, and productive, exercise for the local media, for the academic community, and for the three orders of government; certainly much more worthy than the endless string of "trade missions" and "cultural exchanges" and "fact-finding trips" to the more-exotic but less-pertinent Iceland or Ireland.

Forget Cork.

It's time to check out Cap-aux-Meules, Cloridorme, and Colchester county.


At 1:34 AM, March 14, 2007 , Blogger Mark said...

Brilliant. I knew you were up to something all day. (Something more interesting than reading an admin law casebook...)

Allow me to pitch a theory:

One of the reasons why population loss was not as drastic in those rural areas from 2001-2006 as during the previous five years was the real estate market.

Yup. The real estate market.

Simply put, the devastating effect that the exodus of workers from many rural communities made "scenic retirement properties" suddenly affordable for many city dwellers with ties to rural communities. The decline in real estate values coincided with the first wave of Baby Boomer retirees, and it was a perfect match. Retired people looking to get out of the city to an idyllic retreat suddenly had the means to do it, thanks to the departure of thousands of members of the active labour force.

Now, where can I find the data to back this up?

At 7:22 AM, March 14, 2007 , Blogger Peter said...

WJM and Mark,

This has been a long-standing discussion for human geographers. I think Graeme Wynn (now at UBC, but once concerned with Atlantic Canada) and several geographers from Saint Mary's have written about urban-rural reverse migrations. I agree that it would be a much better discussion for policy makers than this bizarre Ireland-Newfoundland business. I'm just going from memory here: the abandonment of rural landscapes for urban ones coincided first with peak farm clearances in Atlantic Canada, changes in agricultural policy and practice, and then fisheries failures. (Here in Britain the rural migration that began with the growth of industrial cities is a mainstay of geographical study) But there has always been a smaller reverse migration from city to country to coincide with those changes. I did a research project on "Back to the Landers" a few years back that was interesting for what it uncovered about the aesthetic ideas middle class folks sought in rural landscapes, and the kinds of small economies they built up years later. Price of land and homes was a major influence on people's decisions to relocate. Parts of Newfoundland are at a serious disadvantage to say eastern Annapolis for drawing new migrants, in spite of cheap housing. People are attracted to the possibilities of subsistence farming, within easy reach of a major city like Halifax.

At 11:26 AM, March 14, 2007 , Blogger WJM said...

Yup. The real estate market.

Not sure about the data to back it up, but anecdotally, I'd say you're on to something.

You can get some amazing properties in rural Newfoundland or Gaspé for a fraction of what you'd pay on the South Shore of NS or the hideously expensive Maggies.

At 1:58 PM, March 14, 2007 , Blogger Mark said...

And as peter says, absent any sustenance agriculture (or food fishery for that matter) many of these small NL communities simply won't attract that demographic no matter how cheap Danny's ferry rates become.

At 5:11 PM, March 14, 2007 , Blogger campmaster J said...

mark - the mobility/migration data to back up your hypothesis will be released in December, though you might be able to dig up a demographic clue from the age & sex figures coming out in July.

WJM - I agree, it would be nice if StatCan's census divisions in NL had names rather than numbers. As they tend to be very number-oriented people, the best chance comes from the provincial government. If St. John's comes up with some official regional names, StatCan will adopt them.

At 12:28 PM, March 15, 2007 , Blogger WJM said...

If St. John's comes up with some official regional names, StatCan will adopt them.

11. Nunatsiavut
10. Restavut
9. Petit Nord
8. Northern Bays
7. Bonavista
6. Exploits
5. Humber
4. St. George's
3. Coast of Bays
2. Burin
1. Avalon

At 1:00 PM, March 15, 2007 , Blogger Pete said...

Restavut? haha. That's good. Did you come up with that? LOL.


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