Nova Scotia Has An Enduring Opportunity To Grow

Nova Scotia’s population grew by just over 10,000 people in the 12 months ending July 1st, 2021, and there is potential for that growth to accelerate. Prudent planning is needed to capture the opportunity.

After years of stagnation, the population in Nova Scotia started growing in 2015 and has continued since then, averaging over 10,000 per year. Pre-pandemic, this was largely fueled by immigration but that slowed considerably last year because of travel restrictions.

A new source of growth largely made up the difference. Interprovincial migration has grown sharply, especially from Ontario. The net increase from all provinces was 9,949. As a bonus they are young—57% are under 35. The recognition of Nova Scotia’s charms and the enhanced ability for people to work remotely suggest that this is sustainable.

By early next year, the international travel restrictions should have largely subsided. Prime Minister Trudeau has set an annual goal of 400,000 immigrants, higher than previous years to make up for the slow pace during the pandemic. Effective use of the provincial nominee programs can mean that Nova Scotia gets a good share, and those immigrants will bring needed skills to our economy.

Net interprovincial migration could continue at or near recent levels. Together, that suggests net population growth could soon move above 15,000 per year. A larger and younger population provides a broader base over which to spread our costs for roads, hospitals, schools, and servicing covid-inflated debt. That should be a reason to celebrate, but Nova Scotia is not ready.

A bit of context. In the 2015 election campaign, Justin Trudeau promised to bring 50,000 government-supported refugees to Canada in three months, in addition to those who were privately sponsored.

Fortunately, it took 15 months to get the job done. Had they arrived as quickly as Trudeau promised, it would have been a disaster for the refugees and the communities to which they were sent. Refugees coming from traumatizing circumstances need a lot of help. Canada has nowhere near the resources needed to properly support a sudden influx of so many.

Nova Scotia is unprepared for bigger numbers of regular immigrants, who require much less support than refugees. Housing has not kept up with the growth of 10,000 people per year, resulting in very low vacancy rates in apartments, and a spike in house prices. Home prices in Halifax in August were 32.4% higher when compared to a year earlier.

In Halifax, there are thirty construction cranes at work and there are approved plans for many more projects. Building trades are running flat out. So far, it has not been enough to accommodate the existing need or to reduce ultra-low vacancy rates. There are few single-family housing lots available for new construction anywhere in the municipality.

Premier Houston’s mandate letter to the Minister of Labour, Skills and Immigration, Jill Balser, instructs her to:

“Set a goal of a population of 2,000,000 by 2060 by attracting on average 25,000 people per year working with partners across the province in pursuit of this goal.

Target a minimum of 10,000 to 15,000 new migrants each year from across Canada…

Achieve our population target through a combination of migration from other parts of Canada and a strategic immigration plan…”

To make that happen we must build enough housing, which will not occur at today’s pace. What is conspicuously absent from the Minister’s letter is a direction to make sure that there are enough construction tradespeople both for housing and the necessary infrastructure of roads, utilities, schools, and hospitals. Working with the building trades and developers this can be achieved through a combination of in-migration strategies and increased training.

Secondly, there needs to be enough serviced land available for development. The province needs Halifax and other municipalities as partners in this project.

If the 2,000,000 goal is to be met, Halifax will need to double in size over the next four decades. It needs a plan for expanding serviced land at a suitable pace.

Population has expanded well beyond Halifax. Numbers have grown in eleven out of the eighteen other counties, most notably in western Nova Scotia and Antigonish. All available housing is occupied in some places.

Growth inside and outside the metropolitan area will reinforce each other. Municipal governments are responding. Lunenburg is going to allow six-story apartment buildings in certain areas outside the heritage district. The Municipality of Clare reports that current housing challenges are impeding the private sector’s employee recruitment and retention efforts and has developed a housing action plan.

Houston’s goal of doubling population over four decades was not the subject of much discussion or debate during the election campaign. Hopefully, it is one that, like the Ivany report of 2014, all parties can endorse. It needs to involve all parts of the province. The opportunity is there and pursuing it should inform government policy for many years to come.

Disclosure: Your columnist is on the board of the Shaw group which is a major player in land development and an emerging player in residential construction. The board is mostly advisory to the owner-managers and does not participate in profit sharing.


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