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Cape Breton among Atlantic areas hoping to stanch the human exodus

Last Updated Feb 8, 2017 at 9:40 am PDT

Cape Breton Regional Municipality District 9 councillor George MacDonald sits for a photo with his grandchildren, grade 12 high school student Anthony Bradbury, right, and Shayne Breen, left, at MacDonald's home in Glace Bay, N.S., Monday, February 6, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Steve Wadden

HALIFAX – George MacDonald has seen it play out generation after generation, the timeworn ritual of watching friends and family pick up stakes and head west.

The councillor for Glace Bay, a hardscrabble Cape Breton town whose thick coal seams were once some of the most productive in North America, says he’s now facing the prospect of seeing his grandkids join the steady flow of people leaving homes in the east in search of opportunity in the west.

“They’re going to have to leave to find work,” said MacDonald, a former teacher in the area. “So even if you want them to stay or you love the area, it’s just natural that they’re going to move away.”

The trend is nothing new for the community and the region as a whole, which has seen its youth move out for work in B.C., Alberta, Ontario and Halifax year after year as eastern economies struggle with dying industries, an aging demographic and flatlining populations.

In the first tranche of 2016 census data released Wednesday, Cape Breton — long a fixture of the “lowest growth rates” category — registered sixth on that list of ever-smaller urban centres, contracting by 2.9 per cent between 2011 and 2016. Campbellton, which straddles the Quebec-New Brunswick border, tops the list with a 9.3 per cent decline, while New Glasgow, N.S., comes in third at 3.7 per cent.

But analysts suggest that flow may have eased in recent years following a drop in oil prices that led to work slowdowns and job losses in the Alberta oilfields — a major employer for eastern Canadians. Indeed, Cape Breton’s latest growth rate is a significant improvement over 2011, when it shrank by 4.1 per cent.

Fred Bergman, a senior economist with the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council, says that while the levels of outmigration remain high, he believes some workers are returning east to either hold out for an economic rebound or stay in their home communities.

“Generally the Atlantic provinces have net outmigration to other provinces, but we also had a large drop in oil prices in 2015,” he said. “I would suspect that it’s going to slow, but I don’t think it would have reversed itself and switched to a net positive.”

MacDonald said he’s already seeing a slow trickle of people returning to the area, but not enough to put Cape Breton past the 100,000 mark; the data Wednesday pegged its population at 98,722, up from about 97,400 in 2011. He’s hoping the development of the port in Sydney and the possibility of a new mining operation will lure people back to the community, which he says has seen a population drop of about 30,000 in the last 10 to 15 years.

Experts say the phenomenon has been felt throughout Atlantic Canada, which is saddled with low birth rates, high mortality and a growing number of baby boomers that are retiring and whose children are at the “prime moving age,” said Michael Haan, Canada research chair in migration and ethnic relations at Western University in London, Ont.

“So what’s likely happening is that they’re moving,” Haan said.

Politicians in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick are hoping increased immigration and an influx of refugees, largely from Syria, will boost populations that have mostly flatlined or grown only slightly. Nova Scotia saw 1,849 immigrants arrive in th first quarter of 2016, according to Statistics Canada, which helped raise the province’s population.

A report from the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council last month found that while more people were immigrating to Atlantic Canada than ever before, many do not stay. It said a record 8,300 immigrants arrived in 2015. The Halifax-based council said 11,600 immigrants came to the region in the first nine months of 2016, due in part to Syrian refugees and provincial nominee programs.

However, the report found that close to half of them leave over a five-year period.

Richard Saillant, director of the Donald Savoie Institute in Moncton, N.B., said that while the the region is attracting immigrants, foreign students and refugees the challenge is in keeping them here. While urban centres like Halifax may be better equipped to retain immigrants, smaller communities will likely have trouble holding onto new Canadians.

One exception could be tiny Prince Edward Island, which saw a 1.9 per cent growth rate and a population of nearly 143,000, according to Wednesday’s data. Still, even as hundreds of immigrants move to the island, young people have been moving out.

In the end, Saillant said it likely wouldn’t result in a meaningful boost to Atlantic Canada’s population of about 2.3 million.

“Even despite the recent increase, we are still well below the national average and we are also retaining way fewer people,” he said. “We draw fewer and we retain fewer.”

More worrisome for some is the continued hollowing out of small communities in several provinces that are seeing increased urbanization and a rise in the median age, with many leaving the workforce and putting pressure on the health-care system. The success of growing cities like Halifax might mean the decline of smaller towns.

Rob Greenwood of the Memorial University’s Harris Centre in St. John’s, N.L., says smaller urban centres appear to be growing at the expense of rural areas that rely on incomes from people working in the oil sands, the offshore and on local megaprojects. He says that as work wraps up, those sources of income dry up and threaten the existence of some communities.

“What we will be reaching in many of these places is an unsustainable population,” he said. “They won’t survive in 10 to 15 years.”