Editorial: N.L. facing population shrinkage

Published on September 9, 2017

It’s a penetrating insight into the obvious.

Sorry — that’s unfair.

It’s also a timely examination of a serious problem that we’re marching straight towards, and seem to be doing little about. And it may well be that we can do nothing about it.

Thursday, the Harris Centre at Memorial University released its latest population projections, and they are more than a little dire: by 2036, there will probably be 41,000 fewer people in this province. Rural parts of the province will shrink significantly, and those who remain will be even more concentrated on the Northeast Avalon.

The population will be older, and there will be fewer young people, both because they’ll move elsewhere for work, and because they will have their children away.

That’s something you already see in rural communities, many of which are hollowing out, leaving only older residents.

Talk to someone in St. Mary’s Bay about St. Catherine’s Academy, an all-grade school that operates under the slogan “Pursuing Excellence from here to Eternity.” When it opened in 1993, the school had 400 students. By 2012, it had 133. Now, anecdotally, less than 100.

So, rural communities shrinking and aging? There’s really no surprise there.

We have talked about this before, in this exact space — demographics may sound dull as dishwater, but the impact everything we do, the bills we pay, the way our government works, the services it provides and the taxes we pay.

Take one small example: Muskrat Falls was built, in part, based on the assumption that, by 2035, we would need 25 per cent more power than we were using in 2010. But if the population shrinks by 40,000 people in the same period, that’s a drop of eight per cent of power consumers. (The other side of that coin, of course, is that there are 40,000 fewer people to pay off Muskrat Falls’ bill, so higher costs for everyone who’s left.)

The impacts are even more extreme in areas like health care: an aging, shrinking population that coalescing into the Northeast Avalon means problems getting services in rural areas, and problems paying for them as well.

Think of it this way: health care in this province costs $2.988 billion annually. That’s about $6,000 a year for every man, woman and child. Drop the population by 40,000 people, and the cost jumps to $6,500 a year, even if health costs stay exactly the same, meaning an older population has to come up with more money. Cut health costs, and the cuts almost certainly come from a block of the province’s most reliable income tax payers —12-month-of-the-year health care workers — meaning, once again, finding new money.

It is a vicious circle.

So far? Successive provincial governments have continued as usual, talked a good game, but have essentially done nothing. Every day, more time ticks off the demographic doomsday clock.