That shrinking feeling
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.