Nova Scotia’s Population Is Growing Faster Than Expected

The future direction for Nova Scotia’s population may be changing. If so, a lot of planning will have to be rethought.

For many years, the expectation was that Nova Scotia’s population would grow slowly and reach a crest this decade, followed by a long period of slow decline. To make matters worse, the working age population is already declining and has been forecast to go down by about 100,000 over the next 20 years, meaning fewer and fewer workers would have to support more and more seniors.

It does not have to be this way for smaller provinces. From 2011 to 2016, Manitoba’s population grew 6% to 1,278,000 in spite of substantial net migration to other provinces. During the same period Nova Scotia’s population barely budged. Manitoba has been attracting three times as many immigrants as Nova Scotia.

The most recent numbers give signs of hope. Population grew by 9,262 in the 12 months ending in July. This included 5,137 immigrants, a number that continues to be strong even though the number of refugees is diminishing as the surge of Syrians subsides.

Just as interesting, there was net positive interprovincial immigration, which has grown to 2,568 for the same 12 months. Nova Scotia had a net gain from every other province except Alberta, for which there was a small net loss.

International migrants tend to settle in Halifax, in part because its ethnic diversity is greater than the rest of the province. But many rural employers have job openings that they have been unable to fill locally.

The Atlantic Immigration Pilot is an important tool. It allows employers to fast track newcomers if they have such an opening. Fully 41% of the employers who have signed up for this program, and 40% of resulting immigrants, are in areas outside Halifax.

Immigration Minister Lena Diab senses that attitudes to immigrants are becoming more positive. In rural areas, there is an understanding that having more people improves the prospects for retaining schools and other crucial facilities. The jobs that are being filled through the Atlantic Immigration Pilot are not ones that would be otherwise filled locally, and may enhance the viability of the employer.

The minister is optimistic that the positive trend will continue and the numbers so far this year support that. A couple of good years does not establish a dependable trend, but it is time to consider what could be happening.

A continuation of the growth rate of the last three years would mean an additional 55,000 Nova Scotians in 2028. Growth at the rate of the most recent year would mean 95,000 more.

Many government departments have been doing their planning based on the existing model of flat or reducing population. For example, the Nova Scotia Apprenticeship Agency predicts demand for construction workers. It does so using anticipated population growth of just 10,000 over the next decade.

If instead the increase was 95,000, it would point to a much larger demand for new housing, and for the workers to build it. For large scale construction, the building trades have a commendably flexible protocol for exchanging employees between contractors, and between provinces, so supply should be able to adjust to meet demand.

That is less true for individual residential construction, particularly in rural areas where it can already be difficult to find people with the necessary skills.

Education and health care are directly affected. An extra 95,000 people would point to the need for more teachers and more schools. Family doctors would be even harder to find. We will need more nurses, other health professionals, hospital beds, and outpatient facilities. These in turn will drive demand for more construction and service industries.

Our present plans do not cater to this possibility and ramping up capacity will take time.

It is a challenge greatly to be desired. The province already has more deaths than births each year. On our own, we will have an aging and dwindling population. The provincial debt per capita will grow surprisingly quickly.

With higher immigration numbers, we will be younger and will have a growing population and tax base over which to spread the cost of servicing the provincial debt. We should aim high. Ivany recommended 7,000 immigrants per year. A better target would be 10,000, which is still much less than Manitoba does.

The growing immigration numbers are good news. If the positive trend continues we can start planning for a bigger and brighter future.

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