Going down the road
Governments cannot make businesses locate in areas that don’t make fiscal sense for the businesses involved
I saw it in a Conception Bay North town this year, in a town I’d known for years. I noticed it first on the dirt road first — a dirt road, heading back into the country towards a pond with a boat launch. The road was filling in from the sides, the alders no longer being brushed back by steady use. The dirt road was becoming only wide enough for ATVs.
I saw it again on a trail in the same area: paths filling in — what had been a regular ATV trail had shrunk, now too narrow for the four-wheelers. The footpath to a popular swimming hole has simply disappeared, retaken by brush. Just not enough traffic going up and down the hill.
I could understand — like many rural towns in Newfoundland, the town is a rapidly-aging place. Children are not only rare, they’re virtually traffic-stopping. It is what it is: young Atlantic Canadians are going to go to where there’s work. And they are going to live there.
It reminds me of something one of the Lions Club volunteers at the Kingston, N.S. steer roast said to me a few weeks ago. “Look at us,” he said, his arms spread out as if encompassing the whole group. “Our average age is at least 75, and those two are well into their 80s. There’s almost no one younger coming up.”
It obviously concerns politicians right across the region: in Newfoundland and Labrador, the Progressive Conservative government has instituted a population growth strategy that’s supposed to be selling the province to returnees and newcomers alike. Politicians know that an aging population has more expenses (especially in health care) and less income to tax.
But it’s wider than one province. Newfoundland’s Liberal Leader Dwight Ball, after a meeting of the Atlantic region’s four provincial leaders, said, “This is a priority issue for us as Liberals, and there is tremendous value for us to look at this collectively.”
What? Well, the release said, “On the agenda was discussion around retention of population, repatriation, and global positioning for the attraction of newcomers to the Atlantic region.”
And here’s the truth of it: it may be of “tremendous value” for the Liberal leaders to “look at this collectively,” but there’s precious little that can be done about it, whether you have a strategy in Newfoundland and Labrador or some great Pan-Atlantic-Canadian Liberal analysis.
Your only real option is to do the kind of “soup from a stone” kind of rural development that governments used to specialize in: pouring money into helping communities limp along. It’s a strategy that works precisely as long as there’s still money to pour in. Then, the limping stops immediately.
And, frankly, it’s good money after bad.
Far more important right now is how to rationally manage costs and expectations in any province that has a diminishing population base. Mitigation, not false expectations, should be the order of the day.
Governments cannot make businesses locate in areas that don’t make fiscal sense for the businesses involved. You can give a company money to set up in rural Nova Scotia or rural New Brunswick. If the company has to ship raw materials in and finished goods out, unless the workforce is substantially cheaper (cheaper than China), that company is eventually going to relocate closer to markets or materials — or else it’s going to go out of business.
Large parts of the Atlantic region depend on resources that are simply not large enough or valuable enough to keep existing workforces in place. And young people need work.
As a young fisherman from Annapolis Royal — making a tenuous living working out of Sambro, catching silver hake for the Portuguese market (in other words, catching bulk fish that used to be a trash species) — said to me, “There’s no way into what little fish are left.”
People go. They go for good reasons. Paths fill in. Politicians talk.
But we have to find a way to the swimming hole regardless — at least if we want to keep swimming. And soon, it’s going to take a map.