Go­ing down the road

At­lantic Cana­di­ans are mov­ing to where there’s work

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - Rus­sell Wanger­sky Rus­sell Wanger­sky is TC Media’s At­lantic re­gional colum­nist. He can be reached at rus­sell.wanger­sky @Wanger­sky

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, New­found­lan­ders and Labrado­ri­ans among them, 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 New­found­land 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.

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