Sheila Fitzgerald, mayor of Roddickton-Bide Arm and small towns director for Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador, says people of the Northern Peninsula have to come together and find strategies to combat the problems this report presents.
“We are not going to sit back and do nothing,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re going to fight and prove the report wrong.”
According to the study by Harris Centre’s Population Project, if the status quo on births, deaths and migration patterns remain, the Northern Peninsula will see an estimated 40 per cent drop in population by 2036. Not only could the population in the area drop by nearly 7,000, the bulk of the remaining population will be seniors.
“It really puts things into perspective,” said Fitzgerald. “If we don’t change the situation, this is what’s going to happen.
“It’s really alarming.”
This population drop is projected in varying degrees for all regions of the province except the northeast Avalon. Even urban areas like Corner Brook and Gander are projecting a 17 and 18 per cent drop in population, respectively.
The 40 per cent projection for the Northern Peninsula encompasses the area of River of Ponds to St. Anthony, and all communities in between.
Fitzgerald says looking towards economic opportunities and future developments is pivotal in preventing this large-scale population decline and ensuring a future for rural Newfoundland and Labrador.
“The whole scope of this report is really to identify challenges and seek solutions,” she said. “I know we have a forestry that needs to be revitalized, our fishery is gradually coming back, and we had two mining companies excavating in our area [Roddickton-Bide Arm] just this year.”
Another major point of discussion is the move towards more regional governments. This means looking at ways infrastructure and resources, from fire stations, roads, water supply, education, health care and senior care, can be more evenly distributed.
Fitzgerald says this is key to budgeting and ensuring the survival of communities as much as possible.
“We know the population is aging, we know young people are coming out of school and leaving,” she said. “We have to look at how can we strategically react to this information.”
Public engagement will be critical to ensure solutions discussed will be localized and practical. Fitzgerald hopes the Harris report will be seen as a turning point for how Newfoundland and Labradorians look at the future of the province.
As well, with so many Newfoundland and Labradorians living away, she hopes this focus on economic development can create a desire for more people to return home.
“I talk to people who come home with their families during the summer,” said Fitzgerald. “You always hear, ‘I would love to leave the Albertas and Ontarios of the world to come back to Newfoundland and bring my children up here.
“They would sacrifice the big bucks to live the simple life. People don’t want to leave here, and people who have want to come back.”
Ensuring the processing within the fishery and forestry industries is kept with the province is also a point of discussion for better economic development. Fitzgerald says everything must be done to keep industries local.
While there is talk of investing in temporary immigration, Fitzgerald says there have been no discussions on creating incentives to increase the birthrate.
While the figures can paint a bleak picture, Fitzgerald feels they have to be looked at with an optimistic lens. Unless people of the province can stand as a group with a willingness to work together, the population declines projected in this report will be inevitable.
“The Northern Peninsula has to come together and fight for the future of rural Newfoundland,” she said. “Here we have core values that are unshakeable. We’re used to being self-reliant and resilient.
“When things go wrong in the community, we collaborate and work together. Now, we have to do that on an even bigger scale.”