We Must Sustain Strong Population Growth

Growing our population has been a success story in recent years and is crucial to Nova Scotia’s future. COVID has put a dent in arrivals. What will be the longer-term consequences?

There is an unanticipated upside. The COVID pandemic has had a major impact on the way people spend their leisure time.

There is strong growth in kayaking, canoeing, and camping. Bicycle shops are almost sold out. Golf has had a boom year almost everywhere. Golf courses report more people coming for beginner lessons.

The advantage of these sports is that they have little interpersonal contact beyond a person’s bubble, and can be pursued without worrying about masks or social distancing. There is a good prospect that some of the growth will be lasting.

In Nova Scotia, it is possible to live in places where outdoor activities are near at hand, and still be within commuting distance to Halifax. Or, to live near the office and know that open spaces are within a half-hour drive.

Contrast that with Toronto where movement is restricted. Subways are running at less than half pre-pandemic loads. Elevator limits in downtown buildings make the total time to get to the office painful. This has fueled the transition to remote working, some of which will become permanent.

That transition opens endless possibilities for the remote worker. Suppose a family living in Etobicoke or Scarborough no longer needs to be there to do their job or jobs. An option will be to sell their GTA house for a tidy bundle and move to Nova Scotia where they can buy the same or better house in Halifax for much less and use the balance for a cottage. Or, just move to Hubbards or Wolfville and feel rich.

Changes in interprovincial migration were a success story before COVID. For decades, Nova Scotia was a net loser of population to the provinces west of Atlantic Canada. That trend reversed in 2016 and the favourable balance has grown since then.

This continued in 2020’s second quarter with the biggest net gains coming from Ontario, Alberta, and British Columbia. Over the past 12 months, interprovincial immigration added almost 4,000 people, the best year yet.

The opportunity to work remotely can accelerate those migrations. In the near term that can help offset the reduced number of international arrivals.

Immigration to Canada was proceeding at a record pace until the quarter ending in June. Then arrivals dropped to 34,000 from 94,000 in the second quarter of last year. Likewise, Nova Scotia’s immigrants dropped to 866; last year it was more than 2,000.

The pipeline of future immigrants is less full than it was before COVID. The federal government advises that “We’re still accepting most permanent resident applications. Unfortunately, our ability to review and process them is being affected by COVID-19. We can’t currently estimate any processing times.”

And that “We’re currently focusing on priority applications like Canadians and permanent residents returning to the country, vulnerable groups, and work permits for people who perform or support essential services.”

As a practical matter, this will, for the time being, largely restrict future arrivals to candidates that have been approved under the Atlantic Immigration Pilot Program or the Provincial Nominee Programs.

When students come to Nova Scotia from other provinces or countries they are counted as nonpermanent residents. The number of them dropped in Canada as the intake of international students had a substantial decrease.

In Nova Scotia, we were able to record a small increase. That reflected the successful effort to receive some out-of-province students in Antigonish, Wolfville, and elsewhere. As well, more and more international students are deciding to stay after graduation.

Restrictions on students have been somewhat loosened but not enough to get back to where we were. Immigrants from other countries will be fewer until well after COVID subsides.

Population growth has kept our average age from going further up. It sustains the strong pace of residential construction, especially in Halifax where apartment vacancy rates hover around 1%. It has also meant that it is a seller’s market for existing houses.

That will be partly due to today’s low interest rates, as well as buying pressure from outside the province. Real estate agents say demand from out-of-province buyers is an important factor in the strong market for houses. Some buyers have been willing to commit based only on a virtual tour of the property.

We need to keep our numbers growing at pre-COVID’s healthy pace. In the near term, that means we need to maximize immigration from other provinces. Those who have arrived so far have discovered the opportunity on their own, or with the help of relatives. We should be more proactive in telling our story to a broader audience.

The GTA grows by 100,000 people per year. Losing a few thousand to Nova Scotia will hardly be noticed.

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