That shrink­ing feel­ing

The Western Star - - OPINION -

Last week, new and star­tling pop­u­la­tion fore­casts for this prov­ince were re­leased, es­sen­tially show­ing that un­der al­most any sce­nario, the pop­u­la­tion will shrink.

In some cases, the change is dra­matic. The worst case sce­nario puts the 2043 pop­u­la­tion of the prov­ince at 429,400, more than 100,000 fewer res­i­dents than the prov­ince had in 2018.

And we’re the only prov­ince in the coun­try that’s ex­pected to shrink in terms of pop­u­la­tion size.

It’s big news, but it wasn’t out there quickly. As mu­si­cian and busi­ness owner Bob Hal­lett pointed out, “I can’t be­lieve ev­ery me­dia out­let in NL is not talk­ing about this to­day. We re­ally need to start think­ing se­ri­ously about the fu­ture of this place.”

There’s a rea­son for that: many peo­ple sim­ply aren’t in­ter­ested. In its own way, pop­u­la­tion shifts are like re­port­ing on cli­mate change. Peo­ple care about to­mor­row’s weather, but un­til the facts start hit­ting home, cli­mate change is a neb­u­lous and dis­tant con­cept. Peo­ple don’t re­ally face up to the ne­ces­sity of hav­ing to deal with over­ar­ch­ing fu­ture prob­lems un­til, frankly, it’s too late.

The change in pop­u­la­tion will be the re­sult of a com­bi­na­tion of things: a higher num­ber of deaths than births, a fail­ure to at­tract new im­mi­grants, and the de­par­ture of younger res­i­dents of the prov­ince for greener pas­tures, to name just a few.

But per­haps the big­gest con­cern is the de­par­tures. Who will move?

Those who can. Those with the means, op­por­tu­nity, re­sources and ed­u­ca­tion to quickly find their feet some­where else. And that means a crit­i­cal drain of young, smart, pro­fes­sional, tax-pay­ing New­found­lan­ders and Labrado­ri­ans.

A loss of that num­ber of peo­ple will be a gamechange­r, in a very bad way.

There are for­ward-look­ing peo­ple who un­der­stand the sig­nif­i­cance of such a dra­matic change in pop­u­la­tion. There are, sadly, also a lot of peo­ple just don’t want to hear it — and who of­ten hear con­flict­ing mes­sages about how se­ri­ous the prob­lem ac­tu­ally is.

For­mer premier Danny Wil­liams, asked about sim­i­lar num­bers from the Con­fer­ence Board of Canada in 2014, de­scribed them as “ab­so­lute bull­shit. That’s the sim­plest way I can put it.”

When you of­fer some­one a life­line so they don’t have to act, they take it. (Stop and con­sider the fact that peo­ple think there is some magic mit­i­ga­tion mea­sure for Muskrat Falls power costs, just be­cause they’re told there will be, even though ev­ery sin­gle one of the bills still have to be paid and there’s no quick fix on the hori­zon.)

Pop­u­la­tion num­bers aren’t sexy. But they af­fect ev­ery­thing from what stores will stay in busi­ness to what level of health care we can af­ford to pro­vide. They af­fect trans­fer pay­ments, tax rev­enues, elec­tric­ity use (and there­fore, elec­tric­ity prices) and the list goes on.

So why — to echo Hal­lett — isn’t it a big­ger story, since the fu­ture of the prov­ince de­pends on it?

The hard fact is be­cause it’s not to­mor­row or next week or next year.

We did re­port the lat­est num­bers this week and we’ve been re­port­ing on the im­pend­ing pop­u­la­tion de­clines since 2006. The ex­act num­bers vary, but the trends — ex­cept for short blips — have been de­press­ingly con­sis­tent. Big drops, with big im­pact.

Put it this way: if Costco was sud­denly to an­nounce it was clos­ing be­cause the pop­u­la­tion of the North­east Avalon was too small to sup­port it, there would be at­ten­tion. But point­ing out that could hap­pen 10 years from now? Some peo­ple won’t pay at­ten­tion un­til the store an­nounces the ac­tual clos­ing date.

Then, pan­de­mo­nium.

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