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From bubble to boom? New report shows economic momentum in Atlantic Canada

Atlantic Canada’s economy has “wind in its sails” and is poised for an economic breakout, according to a new report from the Ottawa-based think-tank Public Policy Forum. 

The report, entitled the Atlantic Canada Momentum Index, says that Canada’s East Coast provinces are experiencing “historic” momentum, in large part because of population growth.

“It’s ‘have not’ no more,” said president and CEO Edward Greenspon. “Atlantic Canada did lag on a number of indicators in a lot of ways for years. But that’s not true anymore.” 

The think-tank measured 20 metrics, including measuring economic and population growth, level of education, immigration numbers, median age and employment rate. It based provinces’ performance on how many of these indicators improved between 2015 and 2022.

It found Atlantic Canada is performing comparably to the national average, and that it is showing a significant improvement compared to its performance from 2008 to 2015.

“I am proud,” said Wade MacLauchlan, former P.E.I. premier and one of 16 former Atlantic Canadian premiers and deputy premiers who signed on to the report. 

“This is something that I and hundreds of thousands of others have worked hard for over generations. And there is a real sense of accomplishment and something on which we can build and grow.”

But some Atlantic Canadians say this report doesn’t tell the whole story: they say they’re squeezed by skyrocketing housing costs, as population growth and increased wealth creates a strain on the existing housing stock. 

A man in a grey suit with a pink and purple striped tie smiles at the camera.
Edward Greenspon, President and CEO of Public Policy Forum, says that Atlantic Canada should do what it can to capitalize on recent economic growth. (Public Policy Forum)

Population propelling economic growth

Atlantic Canada’s population declined five decades in a row in proportion to the rest of Canada.

That tendency is shifting.

“For the first time, you’re beginning to see population growth,” said Greenspon. 

Recent census numbers show the country’s fastest-growing cities — Halifax and Moncton — are in the Maritimes. 

Much of that population growth is spurred by people like Pauline Landriault, an Ontario resident who is able to work remotely. She has a property in Nova Scotia and is hoping to move there permanently.

“There’s a lot of people who bought places here during the pandemic,” she said. “With the nature and the trails, it’s the most beautiful province in the country. It’s a hidden gem.”

The Atlantic bubble, which allowed unrestricted travel within the East Coast provinces for a period during the COVID-19 pandemic, may have also made the province attractive to people looking to relocate during the pandemic, according to former Nova Scotia premier Stephen McNeil.

A woman in a purple toque, sunglasses and a black parka stands on a sidewalk in front of a ramen restaurant.
Ontario resident Pauline Landriault said she’s planning a permanent move to Nova Scotia, calling the province a ‘hidden gem.’ (David Laughlin/CBC)

McNeil said his province was beginning to see more jobs creation around 2015, and shifted focus toward attracting more people back to Atlantic Canada to fill those jobs.

He said his government fought the long-held belief that Maritimers must give up career advancement aspirations if they choose to stay out East.

“We can do all the economic stuff right, but if we don’t have people, then we’re doomed,” he said. “We’re as close to New York as Toronto is, but we’re more affordable.” 

He said economic challenges in Alberta, low interest rates fostering growth, and Ontario’s high housing prices contributed to people’s decisions to move to Nova Scotia.

Immigration is also booming in Atlantic Canada: the average number of immigrants in Atlantic Canada from 2008 to 2015 was about 7,000 per year. From 2015 to 2022, that average more than doubled, to about 15,000 immigrants per year.

The median age of Atlantic Canadians, while older than the national average, has slowed in its growth.

“There’s a growth in confidence, in population and economic activity. In many ways, this is for Atlantic Canadians, the opportunity to say after 130 years of outmigration, let’s try something else,” MacLauchlan said.

A woman with shoulder-length brown hair in a red jacket and white hoodie stands on a busy Halifax sidewalk.
Halifax resident Melissa Gazzard receives social assistance and said the rising housing costs make it very difficult for her to find long-term housing. (David Laughlin/CBC)

With more prosperity, new challenges

Though the Public Policy Forum report does track the number of new housing builds in a region, it does not track the current costs of housing in Atlantic Canada, which have soared in recent years.

Halifax resident Melissa Gazzard relies on social assistance to pay her bills, and she said increased cost of housing has made it extremely difficult to find a long-term home.

“They’re leaving us that are out here to basically fend for ourselves,” she said. “It’s really hard. They put us in one circle, and say, ‘OK, we’ll deal with you later.’ But it never gets dealt with.”

One of the other metrics measured was access to a family physician, an area where Atlantic Canada continues to struggle.

Nearly 370,000 Atlantic Canadians don’t have a family doctor and the report shows that provinces have not made improvement in decreasing this number. 

“There’s new challenges and problems. There’s problems around health care and access to physicians,” said Greenspon.

“There’s always going to be some people left behind, and policy needs to address that and make sure they don’t fall through cracks,” he said.

A man wearing a suit stands in front of press microphones at a podium
Former Nova Scotia premier Stephen McNeil, shown here speaking to reporters outside Province House on Oct. 13, 2020, is one of 16 former Atlantic Canadian premiers and deputy premiers who signed on to the report. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

How to keep building?

For momentum to keep growing in Atlantic Canada, it needs to be fostered, the report concludes.

“It would be negligent to let this swelling momentum pass without putting the necessary policy supports in place to perpetuate it,” it reads.

The think-tank says it will meet with policymakers to discuss policies to build on the momentum.

“The message that I think is most important is to really recognize we can raise our expectations and that we should keep going. Because this is working and it is good for us,” said MacLauchlan.

McNeil, who left office in 2021, said he expects the trend will continue upward.

“Atlantic Canada is alive and well, and quite frankly, a global player,” he said.

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