The Demographic Challenge Facing Atlantic Canada

The demographic challenge facing Atlantic Canada

Source: Telegraph-Journal
Published Friday April 3rd, 2009

Currently our attention is naturally focused on the short-term issues facing us, in the region and Canada as a whole, of how we will cope with the impact of global slow-down of the economic growth. There will be a lot of ongoing economic and societal pain in 2009 as we have to endure the impact of what is an externally imposed recession.

However, life will return to some sense of normalcy in 2010 and beyond and we will be in a better position to grapple with the more structural issues that should also be keeping policy makers awake at night.

I have already raised in an earlier column the poor showing Canada has in productivity and innovation that are impacting on our global competitiveness. Unless we tackle this, it will continue to hold us back relative to the U.S. and many other economies.

However, one absolutely imperative trend for which we have to develop policy responses to and fast is the demographic challenge facing Atlantic Canada.

The facts are incontrovertible, so let me present the demographic reality facing the region. Within the next two decades, according to the data compiled by the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council, Atlantic Canada's population as a share of Canada's will fall to six per cent from the seven per cent it is today with the decline being felt in the 0-24 years age range and in rural areas. The 65 population will continue to increase from about a third today to over 50 per cent.

Other published reports have confirmed these trends, as well as the impacts on our education system (decline in all sectors), health systems, labour markets (with an increased demand for a PSE qualified workforce), problems of succession for the many small- and medium-sized family businesses and the sustainability of many rural communities.

The C.D. Howe Institute will be holding a conference on May 12 in Halifax that will outline the policy imperatives and the various policy responses open to us as we face this challenge. So before I set the stage as it were for this event, let me disclose that I am a co-chairman of this event with the Hon. Alda Landry and Steve Parker.

We can look to growing our population base by encouraging inward migration from other parts of Canada, seeking perhaps the return of Atlantic Canadians from other parts of the country and we can be more proactive in our immigration attraction and retention strategies, by encouraging the international students our PSE sector attracts to the region to stay. There are very welcome signs of support from Ottawa for this strategy.

While the retirement bulge will provide an increasing replacement demand for talent, both of these strategies will still require that we have additional sustainable employment opportunities in place to support this influx.

This will not be easy as there is no quick fix. The days are gone (hopefully) where governments try and pick winners to create jobs and just in case some readers doubt this, I can present a long litany of government sponsored business failures. Governments however, do have a key role to play in creating a business-friendly environment and providing the necessary infrastructure – transportation, communications, education provision, competitive tax structures and a streamlined civil service to support the business community.

In the face of the demographic challenge we face, it is unlikely that we can grow the population sufficiently by immigration whether from within Canada or overseas. We will have to adopt strategies to cope with the aging population by making more effective use of the population we have by increasing the participation of traditional under-represented groups in our society and utilizing the talent base we have in our “senior” citizens. The flight to the cities is another issue I will address in a later column.

Of course, if climate change unfolds unchecked, we do not have to worry about any of the issues that flow from our aging population. The resulting rise in the Atlantic Ocean will make any population strategy moot for the region as most of us and our descendants will be moving to Upper Canada and beyond!

J. Colin Dodds is president of Saint Mary's University and a professor of finance in the Sobey School of Business and he can be contacted at