Saturday, September 03, 2016

On the ongoing depopulation of Cape Breton

The other day on my personal blog, I linked to a CBC News report describing how a Cape Breton store and bakery, desperate for workers, was offering free land to people who would move to that Nova Scotian island and work for them.

A family-run business is trying a unique approach to recruit people to live and work year-round in rural Cape Breton by offering two free acres of land to people who are willing to relocate.

Farmer's Daughter is a general store and bakery in Whycocomagh, N.S., which has a population of about 800. Sisters Sandee MacLean and Heather Coulombe took over the business earlier this year from their dairy farmer parents, who started it nearly 25 years ago.

MacLean told CBC News that the store has great employees — but it needs more of them to expand their operations.

"We have big ideas about what we'd like to do," she said.

The business would like to increase the number of year-round employees from 12 to at least 15, but hasn't gotten much response to traditional "help wanted" ads. Many young people have left the community to work in places like Halifax or Alberta.

This story has gotten quite a lot of attention nationally. I would be entirely justified, alas, in suspecting that any bump in migration will be as minor as that which occurred this February when the Cape Breton If Donald Trump Wins website briefly went viral. This humour website did get quite a lot of attention, and apparently did result in at least some inquiries. By this July, though, it seems as if the only migrants the website attracted were temporary ones, in the form of tourists.

A three-ringed binder, tucked into the corner of a small visitor information centre in Nova Scotia, may contain the proof of what many Cape Bretoners have suspected — that more Americans are descending on the island this year.

And locals say Donald Trump is the reason.

All day, tourists flow in and out of the one-room visitor information centre in the village of Baddeck, asking for advice on what to see and how to make the most of nearby attractions. A glance at a visitors' book — marked "Where are you from?" in block capital letters — reveals various American locations: Connecticut, Florida, New York City.

[. . .]

Room nights sold across the province rose by three per cent compared to the first half of 2015, but Cape Breton saw a boom of 16 per cent.

There was also a 12 per cent increase of visitors to Nova Scotia from the United States, while visitation from overseas declined seven per cent.

Although there are clearly many American tourists, it's harder to come by Americans who are actually following the website's advice and immigrating.

Back in January 2015, I looked into the phenomenon of out-migration from Atlantic Canada, the easternmost region of Canada and one that has consistently failed to share in the relative prosperity of other provinces. This out-migration does not occur at the same rate throughout. In the province of Nova Scotia, for instance, the capital city of Halifax has continued to experience some growth close to the Canadian average. At the other end is Cape Breton Island, a mountainous island in the northeast of the province famed as the last stronghold of Canadian Gaelic language and culture and as a land with a sadly dysfunctional industrial economy. Once, before the world wars, coal mining helped sustain a cosmopolitan industrial working class, living in the cities and towns which now constitute the Cape Breton Regional Municipality. But now, the mines are shut and nothing has replaced them. With no local economic motor and not nearly enough subsidies and income transfers coming from outside, the population of the entire island has been collapsing for decades, as the incipient natural decrease of the island's population is accelerated by emigration.

Nova Scotia's Finance and Treasury Board has noted the scale of this collapse. Rural Nova Scotia--Nova Scotia outside of Halifax, even--has been in steep decline for some time.

Cape Breton has done much worse than the average. Chris Shannon's widely shared 2014 Cape Breton Post article looks at the scale, and the inevitability, of this.

Fifteen-year-old Taylor O’Brien says the lure of more opportunities in the West has her thinking a move to Alberta is in her future after she completes Grade 9 at Bridgeport school in Glace Bay this June.

She says the plan is to move to Fox Creek, Alta., a town in the heart of that province’s oil industry. Her father lives there and O’Brien says she wants to move in July, in time to get settled and begin high school there in the fall.

“I really thought it through. I want to move,” she says.

“I’m too used to being stuck around here. It gets old after a while … seeing the same places. I see the Mayflower Mall like 10 times a week. I just want to explore.”

Sydney resident Thérèse Begg, 32, along with her spouse, intend to leave Cape Breton in the next couple of years for either Ontario or British Columbia.

It’s due to a lack of nightlife in the downtown and the small number of quality restaurants, she says.

Despite making a decent living as a baker and her partner being a machinist, Begg says it’s the lifestyle that’s driving them away from her hometown.

“There’s no variety of anything to do. Everybody goes to the hockey game, go to Tim Hortons, and they go to the movies. And that’s pretty much all there is to do,” says Begg, who grew up in Sydney but lived in Halifax for 10 years before returning in 2010.

The statistical trends in 2014 were grim. They have not changed at all.

CBRM’s economic development manager John Whalley says he’s more concerned about the rate of decline, which isn’t showing any signs of slowing down.

“It’s actually accelerating,” he says.

“Cape Breton Island, in terms of rate, saw the biggest decline of any region in the country, according to this (Statistics Canada) data, and CBRM, obviously, constitutes a big part of that.”

In 2012-13, the figures show the CBRM lost 931 people to interprovincial migration to other parts of Canada, and a further 301 people moved to other areas of Nova Scotia (known as intraprovincial migration).

The other municipalities in Cape Breton are worse off with declines in population from the 2006 to 2011 census years at 4.6 per cent for Richmond County, 5.7 per cent for Inverness County, and 6.3 per cent for Victoria County.

Whalley says long-range projections from consulting firm Stantec estimate the CBRM’s population in 2031 would be approximately 78,000.

The island’s population is estimated to shrink to 102,000 from its current size of 134,535 people.

My Prince Edward Island, in marked contrast, is projected to experience relatively strong growth over that timeframe, having surpassed the declining population of Cape Breton just a few years ago.

All I can do is note this trend, rooted in the very deep-seated issues described. Cape Breton is beautiful--its natives agree, its visitors agree--but relatively few of these people actually want to live here. It's difficult to see how this could change, barring something completely unexpected and--frankly--unimaginable. At most, the ongoing slowdown in Alberta might slow down emigration, for a time. (Or, perhaps more plausibly, it might redirect it.)

No comments: