A place where people can lay down roots
Nova Scotia can pat itself on the back for another strong year of immigration. Syrian refugees were a large part of the growth seen in 2016, but 2017 saw continued growth without large numbers of refugees. In a Dec. 29 press release, the Province said more than 4,000 newcomers were welcomed this past year. A cited survey suggested attitudes towards immigration are shifting tremendously, and for the better. This is good news for an aging province looking to stem the tide of out migration to the west and beyond.
Cape Breton Partnership has chosen to focus heavily on increasing immigration in Cape Breton. The Partnership now operates three programs designed to attract, settle and retain foreign nationals to our island; Atlantic Immigration Project (pairing skilled workers with employers), Cape Breton Local Immigration Project (focus on making local areas more immigration-friendly) and Cape Breton Connect (pairing business mentors with student mentees).
After a December presentation to council however, it is clear that the Partnership’s focus remains more on CBRM and less on rural areas. It is early days for these recruitment programs so there is justification for getting it right in the CBRM before rolling things out island-wide.
In April 2017, Municipal Council worked with outside consultant Gordon Mcintosh to create a list of strategic priorities for the council to undertake during their current term. Immigration did not make the list, but for now, that makes sense. There are several issues that must be addressed before attempting to settle more people here en masse.
What are Council’s top five current priorities, according to the Strategic Priorities Chart council introduced at their May 8 meeting? 1. Tourism Strategy, 2. Affordable Housing, 3. Broadband, 4. Seasonal worker accommodation, and 5. Economic development strategy.
All five priorities arguably help lay the groundwork for long-term population growth in the County. More directly, affordable housing and economic development are two pillars where the county can choose to not only address the needs of current residents, but plan a landscape that will attract newcomers.
It is good to see that two of Council’s top five priorities are housing-related as Victoria County is experiencing nothing short of a housing crisis. Dealing with seasonal accommodation issues should be part of a wider plan to deal with affordable housing and a shortage of rental stock. If we want to grow the population, housing strategy needs to focus more heavily on long-term rentals that welcome families to stay, and not just provide small seasonal dwellings for a transient population.
The year-round rental vacancy rate in Baddeck stands close to zero and the rest of the County appears much the same. With the popularity and ease of Airbnb and other web-based portals designed for the lucrative short-term tourist rental market, there is little incentive for property owners to rent long-term. At the same time, there are frequent requests by would-be newcomers to rent in Baddeck and surrounding area. I have heard anecdotally of more than one person choosing not to live or work in Baddeck due to a lack of housing.
Economic development is a much more nebulous and timeconsuming undertaking. A review of the County’s Economic Development Strategy was slated for August, but that review has not yet happened. Economic Development Officer Patrick Austin will appear before Council this month.
As important as tourism is to our survival, we must see economic development emerge as a multi-pronged approach. Economic diversification makes a region stronger and there are lots of other sectors that the county could focus on such as aquaculture (Little Narrows gypsum pits could hold a lot of farmed fish, if flooded), farming (Cape Breton was once a net exporter of agricultural products and much of the land potential remains), technology and innovation (the newly-formed Alexander Graham Bell Foundation is charged with bringing the story of Alec and Mabel Bell alive. What better way than to animate the region than with a Centre for Innovation?)
One major priority that did not make Council’s list is child care. If we want youthful newcomers, we must have viable options for the next generation of minds and bodies to be cared for, developed and taught. Lack of reliable, affordable child care has also reached crisis status for existing children and parents so much work is needed in this area.
New immigrants will not have the family social net that so often chips in with free childcare. Employers frequently complain about the small labour pool, but a parent cannot pursue employment without reliable childcare. The job boards at employment and resource centres have plenty of minimum wage job opportunities, but can we expect a parent with no reliable childcare to apply?
The creation and successful piloting of the Bras d’or Lakes Day Camps Association in Baddeck last summer by five local working parents was encouraging. Their goal was to provide an enriching experience for kids during the summer months while providing a solution to the childcare conundrum. They are working now to provide yearround options. If their success continues, it could be a model for elsewhere in the county.
We need to create an environment where people are invited to lay down roots, not simply visit during summer months. Tourism is our lifeblood but seasonal employment alone attracts a transient, often childfree population. Conditions for long-term, stable population growth need to be cultivated. In turn, this emphasis will not only foster growth, but improve the lives of people already residing here.