The Worst Kind of Disappearing Act

Living in the United States, the fact that I am Canadian has become one of my most defining features. Many of my graduate school peers referred to me as simply “Canada” and I am often introduced as “Maureen, from Canada!” I honestly don’t mind. I’m very proud to be Canadian and am always eager (sometimes too eager) to share my heritage with others. For many Americans, however, knowing that I am from Canada is enough. They hear “Canada” and immediately  tell me how much they enjoyed visiting Vancouver (especially true when I lived in Colorado) or tell me they have family in Ontario (pretty common now that I’m living in Michigan). Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the effort to make a connection and enjoy chatting about all parts of my home country. But I rarely have the opportunity to talk about where in Canada I’m from. I say that I don’t have the opportunity because often the person I’m talking to hasn’t heard of my home province (except that one asshole who had but said “I thought that was just a joke province” – what does that even mean?!) or just doesn’t seem particularly interested, maybe because they don’t know much about it. I know this isn’t a fair representation of all Americans but it has been my genuine experience. This reaction bums me out because as proud as I am of being Canadian, I’m equally proud of being a Maritimer and an Islander. Which is why I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about an article written by John Ibbitson for The Globe and Mail titled “How the Maritimes became Canada’s incredible shrinking region.”

For Canadian geography amateurs, the Maritimes consists of three provinces: Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island (PEI). I was born and raised in PEI and am fiercely proud of that fact. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, I moved away from PEI in 2007 and though I visit frequently, it is unlikely that I will settle there for reasons that were astutely highlighted in Ibbitson’s piece. In fact, he opens his article with a brief profile of a 19-year-old student who was also born and raised in PEI (coincidentally in a town where most of my paternal family is from) and describes how she would love to live on the Island but doesn’t feel there is ample enough opportunity for that to be a realistic option. I know so many people my age who feel that way. It’s a big part of why I moved away in the first place. The Maritimes is a beautiful place filled with culture and friendly people. Unfortunately, opportunity is also missing because of two inter-related phenomena described by Ibbitson: economic and demographic decline.

Weakened economies in each of the Maritime provinces are exacerbated by the fact that young workers are moving away and taking their tax dollars with them. Ibbitson lays out a compelling argument for how the Maritimes’ relationship with the rest of Canada has negatively impacted economic growth in the region but I won’t dwell on them here. Instead, I want to focus on his proposed solutions.

In addition to reducing dependency on Ottawa, encouraging private sector growth, and promoting opportunities in the rural economy, Ibbitson contends that a key solution to the Maritimes’ twin problem of economic and demographic decline is immigrants. Professor Peter McKenna is quoted in the article as saying “Our region… lacks the energy, entrepreneurial spirit and the desire for a fresh start that new Canadians bring. We simply do not have enough new Canadians coming to the Maritimes.” Ibbitson reiterates this point by arguing that Maritime provinces should “aggressively recruit immigrants” to replenish diminishing populations.

New Brunswick and Nova Scotia are not doing particularly well in this regard, attracting only one-third of the immigrants they should be. On the one hand this may be something of a chicken-and-egg problem as newcomers “tend to gravitate toward communities that already have newcomers.” But Ibbitson rightly points out that racism and a general aversion to change may also be keeping immigrants away from the Maritimes.

This resistance to change is no joke. I remember the kerfuffle when Charlottetown, PEI wanted to construct a traffic circle at a busy intersection. A lot of the opposition to this idea stemmed from legitimate concerns regarding the cost of the construction but there also seemed to be a general attitude that things just shouldn’t be changed. “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” except with a lack of awareness that the dangerous intersection was, in fact, “broke.”

Still, there is reason to be optimistic, particularly for my home province. Unlike its neighbours, PEI has actively recruited newcomers and immigrants make up 10% of Islanders, a statistically appropriate number given the provincial population. Although the number of immigrants to PEI has increased since I moved away, I do remember noticing the increasing multiculturalism of Charlottetown when I lived there. I remember feeling proud of the relative diversity of my high school. It was still overwhelmingly white but the faces in my yearbook were significantly more diverse than many of my friends’ who went to suburban high schools elsewhere in Canada. I’m grateful to have been exposed to many different cultures despite living in a small place and I hope newcomers continue to feel welcomed by my province both in policy and in practice.

I am not so blinded by love for my province that I think it is a perfect case study (I wonder about how welcome and integrated newcomers truly feel), but it is worth noting that unlike New Brunswick and Nova Scotia employment growth in PEI has reflected the national average. This is no small feat for a region that is in danger of disappearing. As employment growth stagnates and reverses elsewhere in the Maritimes, Acadia University President Ray Ivany suggests in the article that “The demographic and economic spiral has reached the point that, if we don’t grab hold of the situation now, there is a reasonable question to be posed of whether we can turn it around.”

History is full of towns and cities that boomed then busted, thrived then gradually became ghost towns. On the rare occasion that I travel from Ann Arbor to Detroit, I am overwhelmed by a feeling of emptiness and sadness. It’s hard to reconcile the powerful and beautiful architecture of the downtown core with the desolation and blight of its immediate surroundings.  The Maritimes may not be Detroit but the pain of watching a place you love on a downward trajectory is shared. Fortunately for New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and PEI it’s not too late to turn things around. I hope the ideas put forth by the Ibbitson article are earnestly considered, debated, and acted upon, so that this shrinking trend doesn’t become a disappearing act.