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