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Russell Wangersky: That shrinking feeling

It’s a numbers game — and not in the way you think. There’s been plenty of talk over the year about declines in this province’s population, legitimate hand-wringing over an aging population that doesn’t have a strong cohort of young people coming up to pay taxes and fill jobs as an ever-larger portion of residents totter into retirement. And all of that is absolutely true. From a demographic point of view, we’re looking at a cliff, with an ever-larger number of people in older cohorts that need more services, but pay less in taxes. Young people in their childbearing and income-growing years have gone to greener pastures with more jobs and better pay.

Russell Wangersky

So maybe you’d think of the 2016 census, released Wednesday, as a good thing — and in some ways, it is.

The 2016 census showed a population growth of one per cent in this province since 2011, with the population now 519,716.

Good news, right? You might think that, especially when you look at our Atlantic Canadian neighbours.

At least we’re not Nova Scotia, where the population grew just 0.2 per cent, or New Brunswick, where the population actually fell by 0.5 per cent. (Prince Edward Island’s population grew by 1.9 per cent.)

But coming second in the Atlantic provinces’ population derby is a small thing — because, nationwide, the change between the 2011 and 2016 censuses saw Canada’s population increase by five per cent.

Canada grew by more than 1,675,000 people — or, for argument’s sake, by more than three times the population of this entire province.

There will be, for example, more seats in the House of Commons. They won’t be here.

Thanks to the political structure when we joined Canada, we get seven of the 338 seats in the House of Commons. That’s slightly more than two per cent of the federal seats — yet we have only 1.5 per cent of the nation’s population. Hardly fair representation by population; you can argue that we have more seats and influence than we deserve. Based strictly on population, we really only deserve five seats.

With that same ratio in mind, look back at the number of federal civil servants in 2011 (the last year for full census results; the 2016 numbers are only just rolling out). Across the country, there were some 427,000 federal employees, and this province had 7,442 of them — earning and spending, by the way, $514 million in salaries. Do that ratio again, and you see that with 1.5 per cent of the population, we have 1.74 per cent of the nation’s federal employees. Once again, some could argue that’s more than our fair share.

In 1986, this province had 2.2 per cent of the nation’s population, and I can remember complaints about the fact that we had fewer federal employees than our size deserved.

The fair ratio now would be at around 6,400 federal employees (if there still are 427,000 federal employees) in this province, if everything was spread evenly across the nation — and that would mean a loss of 1,000 jobs and some $69 million in salaries from the provincial economy.

Ugly math indeed.

Of course, that’s not how federal staff are apportioned across the country, but if someone in another part of the nation were to make the same argument about federal employees that we did in the ’80s, how exactly could we argue that they were wrong?

You begin to see the problem.

Yes, we’re growing — the problem is, other places are growing faster.

It’s not just a matter of keeping up with the Atlantic Joneses.

If we don’t find a way to at least match the population growth in the rest of the country, we can expect our already-small influence to erode further.

The solution? Well, it’s not birth rates. It’s not unusual for this province to have more deaths than births in a given year. It’s also — at least not right now — the strength of our economy. We’re depending on deficit funding and if you go back to the 2011 census — the last census with full data available — close to one-third of employed Newfoundlanders and Labradorians were in some sort of federally or provincially funded job.

The only option? To find people to come and live here who actually see our situation as an improvement to their daily lives.

Or we can just be satisfied with being an ever-more-vestigial part of a growing nation.


Russell Wangersky is TC Media’s Atlantic regional columnist. He can be reached at — Twitter: @Wangersky.

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