population growth retention new Brunswick

Positive Attitudes Needed for Population Growth

New Brunswick’s efforts to attract and retain immigrants is making headlines again. And again, I’m left wondering what we’re doing to attract and retain everyone who doesn’t identify as an immigrant – and why we as a province and as a region are so bad at celebrating our successes, but so good at focusing on our failures.

In advance of a recent immigration conference in Fredericton, former premier Frank McKenna described our region as being in a “death spiral.” A report from the Public Policy Forum released in conjunction with that conference finds New Brunswick with the second-worst retention rate for immigrants in Canada. (Over a five-year period, only a little over half of those people who moved to this province stayed here. Nationally, the retention rate is more like 80 per cent; even Nova Scotia saw roughly three out of four immigrants staying in that province.) We are also the province with the dubious distinction of having a declining population overall. 

I’ve poured over the news reports that covered the conference and McKenna’s comments, as well as these types of stories from the past several years. Time and again, the declining workforce is attributed to an exodus of youth and an aging population. So why aren’t we talking equally about youth retention and drawing on the skills of seniors? Immigration is necessary if we are to fill the region’s 25,000 (and growing) job vacancies of which ACOA head Francis McGuire speaks, but so is addressing the root causes we’re identifying.

There must be more we can do to help our young students align their skills with the workplace vacancies we anticipate, to reach out to former New Brunswickers and Maritimers whose heartstrings could be tugged on to draw them home. There must be more we can do to create flexible employment situations where older citizens can contribute to the workforce. And we can certainly do more to build ourselves up, rather than tear our region down.

It didn’t make the headlines and articles I read, but the Public Policy Forum released a second report that does just that. It tells our stories – and not just those of immigrants. “People from around the world. People whose families have lived in the region for generations. People coming home.”

This report highlights the fact that, despite outmigration being an issue, the rate of 18-to-24-year-olds leaving the region has been decreasing over the last five years. It also points to data showing that immigrants who live in Atlantic Canada enjoy better economic standing than the average immigrant across Canada.

It narrates the journeys of several families and individuals who have come to call New Brunswick home. Anna Tselichtchev of Woodstock shares how moving here forced her to slow down and appreciate life in a different way, experiencing her moment of ‘this is home’ when the buds burst through on the big tree outside her house. Dan Elman of Saint John shares that the key to retention is simple. “They won’t stay if their family isn’t happy, if their kids aren’t happy, if their dog isn’t happy. It’s important that even the dog is happy.” These are the pieces of the puzzle we need to focus on.

So again, it comes back to how we are telling our story. When the headlines focus again and again on what we don’t have, on what we are losing, on our ‘death spiral’ rather than the gains we are making and celebrating the success stories that are slowly shifting our economy and our communities, we bog ourselves down in a self-fulfilling prophecy and defeatist attitude. We shouldn’t hide the facts and figures, but we should pay more attention to the context in which we share them. We can tell our story in a way that encourages both immigrants and Canadians to choose New Brunswick, rather than scare them away.

A version of this post appeared originally in the Times & Transcript. Click here for more of Jenna Morton’s column, She Said.

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