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LETTER: Newfoundland and Labrador’s population pickle

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Population decline is having long-term effects on our economy and culture. The negative birth/death ratio and an aging demographic particularly affects rural areas many of which are having trouble maintaining services.

A stagnant economy together with the high cost of living creates a further powerful incentive for young people not to have children or to leave.

Two confluent factors have fundamentally contributed to the population malaise. The first is the estimated 50,000 Newfoundlanders and Labradorians forced to leave as a result of depleted fish stocks in the 1990s. Cod moratorium migrants and their offspring are now strengthening the demographics and tax base of other provinces, notably Alberta.

The shock of such a calamitous depopulation event, without mitigation, might continue to affect us for a hundred years as it did Ireland after the 1847 potato famine. There, not unlike here, songs depicting cultural alienation continue to persist.

The second is that we have become overly dependent on one area of resource development — oil. Due to accidental geography (geomorphology and continental drift) we became the beneficiaries of highly valuable Grand Banks fish, oil and gas assets.

While grossly mismanaging the former we acquiesced to the gas barons and made no serious attempts to develop the latter. Policy makers became complacent and not as creative and aggressive in diversifying the economy as they should have been.

“Have province” rhetorical cheerleading left us high and dry when oil prices fell.

Instead of laying the foundation for more stable and comprehensive development, such as was done in Norway, sizable oil royalties here were mishandled. Money was often spent on folly such as increasing the size of the public service and developing Muskrat Falls.

So where should our priorities lie?

Of foremost importance is to produce more children in tangent with an environment suitable for their well-being. To be blunt, we need more consumers and tax payers. It should not be on expensive, irrelevant attention seeking, theatrical stunts such as the recently proposed referendum on the federal equalization formula.

Population growth must take precedence over all other development initiatives. In Europe and Asia which faces similar fertility struggles innovative family support mechanisms are now being implemented. These include direct cash payments, working one hour less per day, raising the minimum wage, tax breaks, interest free loans, free tuition, mortgage assistance, more available and affordable day care including early childhood education.

In Poland, for example, income taxes are eliminated for people under 26. In Hungary women are exempted from paying income taxes for life if they have four children. It is time to discuss all of these options here.

Instead of referendums, I suggest tracking down young people, especially those with children, who are considering out migration or have already left and asking them what specific factors or measures will or would have induced them to stay.

We should also be thankful for foreigners who come here to live, work and study.

We should treat them as one of our most valuable resources and hope they will stay. We should avoid any behaviour that might be considered racist. Individually, we should make attempts to help them feel comfortable outside of their own cultural enclaves. Upon encountering immigrants, break the ice by asking if they are enjoying their stay here and if they are being treated all right. Be attentive to their response.

As go families, so go we.

Tom Hawco,
St. John’s


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