Thursday, December 06, 2007

A note on one Canadian periphery

My birthplace, the Canadian province of Rrince Edward Island, population 140 thousand, isn't often considered in relation to wider demographic trends. While it's true that the Island is peripheral even in the Canadian context, with its population of 140 thousand being smaller than those of a dozen Canadian cities and an economy based primarily on the service sector (including tourism) and slowly declining primary industries like agriculture and fishing, it's also true that Prince Edward Island's demographic prospects and futures prefigure the demographic issues facing peripheral areas throughout the First World. Scott Peterson wrote last week about how falling populations is reshaping the landscape of many depopulating parts of Europe; Prince Edward Island has faced this trend for more than a century. Although there is now intense human presence on the landscape of Prince Edward Island, with more than half of the Island's land being used for agricultural or other purposes, in the late 19th century an evenly distributed population of farmers occupied the near-totality of the Island's territory. This geographic distribution of population changed when, soon after Canadian confederation, Islanders began to participate in the ongoing mass emigration from Atlantic Canada.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the exodus was primarily to the ‘Boston states.’ It reached crisis proportions in the 1880s when our industrial boom began to go bust. Despite efforts to staunch the outward flow, it continued unabated until the United States closed the border during the 1930s Depression. Scholars estimate that between 1851 and 1931 some 600,000 people left the Maritimes, nearly 50 percent of the population still present in 1931. Following the Second World War, out-migration again became acute as villages dependent on farming, fishing, forestry, and mining expelled their people to the booming Ontario economy. The oil crisis of the 1970s shifted the emphasis to jobs in Alberta.

[. . .]

Scholars debate the impact of out-migration asking whether it was a cause or a result of the region’s poor economic showing. It was undoubtedly both. Living on the edge of two cradles of industrialization in the nineteenth century – New England and the St Lawrence-Great Lakes heartland – it was difficult to establish a third node of development on the Atlantic coast. People were inevitably attracted to the new growth centres. With dwindling numbers, provincial grants declined as did political clout in Ottawa. Economic growth thus became even more difficult to sustain against the centralizing tendencies of Canada’s National Policy. Head offices of banks and businesses followed the money and people were obliged to do likewise. It is unclear whether these trends can ever be reversed.

As a province with a relatively more agricultural economy than its neighbours, Prince Edward Island experienced relatively higher out-migration, with outright population decline being the main trend for most of the first half of the 20th century and many territories which once were farmed being allowed to return to nature. Out-migration slowed down over the second half of the 20th century, as federal transfer payments began to subsidize seasonal economies, the standard of public services improved sharply, and the tourism sector began to take off. The net resutl of all this is that Prince Edward Island faces less potentially damaging demographic challenges than any of the other three Atlantic Canadian provinces. For instance, the Island's fertility and birth rates are higher than in most other Canadian provinces, while the province actually benefits from interprovincial migration: more Canadians move to Prince Edward Island than leave. The tourism sector plays a major role in this second trend; tourism campaigns have successfully promoted an image of Prince Edward Island as a pleasant territory with beautiful natural scenery and an engaging, friendly population, this industry attracting migrants and helping to boost levels of employment. If Prince Edward Island's economy didn't make spectacular leaps forward, this economic strategy may well have helped the province avoid the massive out-migration that has dominated Newfoundland and Labrador's demographic trends for decades. It's worth noting that this strategy isn't dissimilar from Spain's recent economic and population growth, driven so heavily by (among other migratory trends) the movement of northern Europeans to the Costa del Sol and other tourist destinations.

All of this isn't to say that Prince Edward Island doesn't face serious demographic issues. The definitely sub-replacement fertility rate, among other factors, ensures that the number of students (and future workers) in Prince Edward Island may fall by one-fifth by 2020, and Prince Edward Island's development minister has warned that the aging of Island's population and the province's development into a "retirement province" risks creating serious labour shortages, especially if immigrant retention rates don't rise. Even now, as Zena Olijnik ("Immigration: Give us your skilled") wrote recently in Canadian Business, flawed guest worker programs and local populations unwilling to undertake dirty and dangerous jobs are threatening the viability of some industries, leaving some people in these same outlying areas to propose economic revitalization strategies like wildly uneconomic ferry routes. The only thing that can be said about these issues is that the Island has managed to buy itself some time in which to adapt to its new demographic environment. Here's to hoping that this time will be well-spent.

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