Population growth has been positive for Nova Scotia. The mix of sources needs to be managed.

Nova Scotia’s population grew by 30,750 residents in the twelve months ending September 30th. That robust number conceals worrying trends.

The rate of growth was lower than the country as a whole, and dropped Nova Scotia to sixth among the provinces.

In recent years the primary sources of growth were international immigrants who have been granted permanent residence status, and net-positive migrations from other provinces, especially Ontario.

Immigrants to Nova Scotia in the third quarter of 2023 were 33% below 2022, while Canada as a whole was down 15%. Net interprovincial migration dropped from 2,211 in the third quarter of 2022 to negative 16 in the same quarter in 2023.

Vacancy rates of apartments are tight everywhere in Canada, but Halifax, and Nova Scotia as a whole, are even tighter than the national average. That and the higher-than-everywhere-else taxes are discouraging prospective permanent residents.

Nova Scotia’s big increase for the quarter of the year arises from the number of non-permanent residents. There were 16,564 more of these in the twelve months ending September 30th, about triple the growth in the previous year. Almost all of them are people with work permits (10,007), study permits (2,100), or both (4,326).

As noted in this space in November the permit holders have found this to be an easy way to bypass the more arduous regular immigration system. Unlike that system the number of participants is not controlled. The increase in work permit holders in Canada jumped from 150,000 in the twelve months ending September 30, 2022 to 555,000 in the following twelve months.

Like other provinces, Nova Scotia is scrambling to meet the need for health care and for housing. The temporary foreign workers, many of whom want to become citizens, are part of the solution. In 2023 the Immigration and Population Growth office supported 244 principal applicants in the construction trades and 762 in health care.

For the 2022-23 academic year in Nova Scotia, there were 1,323 international students enrolled in a university program in health or a health-related field. That is less than 10% of the 14,567 international students. At NSCC 140 out of 1,183 visa students are in a health-related program. They make up less than 10% of NSCC’s construction trades students.

The growth in student numbers adds to the housing shortage, which also affects them. In 2023 the province had 15,000 students who are non-permanent residents who are not involved in health care or construction trades.

In 2023 the Trudeau government finally shut down the Roxham Road open door for asylum seekers, the vast majority of whom are economic migrants. Immigration Minister Marc Miller has incomprehensibly opened the door again by waiving visa requirements for people flying to Canada, resulting in an upsurge in asylum seekers. Among other things, this crowds out the space for qualified refugees from places like Syria and South Sudan.

More recently, Miller has told Nova Scotia that it must take on more asylum seekers as a condition of being allowed to recruit more skilled foreign workers, including those in health care and construction trades.

The growth in permanent residents from inside and outside of Canada has added considerably to the income and sales taxes in recent years. This allowed the province to accelerate spending, especially on health care, without running serious deficits.

Replacing much of that growth with an upsurge in non-permanent residents has a much less beneficial impact. Students working part time, asylum seekers, and temporary foreign workers will not generate much income or sales tax.

It is risky to attribute too much significance to variations in a few quarters. That said, for planning purposes the province needs to pay attention to the warning signs:

  1. International students pay much higher tuitions than Canadians, providing a financial windfall for post-secondary institutions but adding to the stress on housing and health care. The province should negotiate caps with each university on how many it should enrol.
  2. The province must avoid a return to the years where net interprovincial migration is always negative. More research is needed to understand the recent fall. Housing, health care, and taxes are likely to be relevant.
  3. Likewise, research is needed to understand how many of the non-permanent residents are likely to seek and receive permanent resident status.

Population growth has been the driver of many positive developments in Nova Scotia. The mix of sources matters. Each requires a distinctive set of supports to make the new arrivals successful.


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