'There is a stark reality' to N.L.'s staggering population challenges, Al Hawkins says

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'There is a stark reality' to N.L.'s staggering population challenges, Al Hawkins says

'There is a stark reality' to N.L.'s staggering population challenges, Al Hawkins says

Faced with an unprecedented population challenge, Newfoundland and Labrador's provincial government acknowledges there is a "stark reality" for some communities, but hope for others.

"We're not talking about resettlement," said Labour Minister Al Hawkins.

"But within a certain period of time, if we do not have younger people moving in, we know some of these communities may indeed not survive — and that's the reality of it."

A report by Memorial University's Harris Centre is painting a bleak picture, projecting a decline of 40,000 from the current population of just under 520,000 over the next two decades.

And nearly all of this erosion will occur in rural Newfoundland and Labrador, continuing an exodus that has been underway for more than a generation.

"We've just been building towards this sort of flood that we're seeing right now," the Harris Centre's Alvin Simms, who co-authored the report, stated Thursday.

No magic solution

So what is the government doing in the face of what experts like Simms are calling an unprecedented population challenge — one where the numbers in areas like the Springdale-Triton region could plunge by 40 per cent by 2036.

Hawkins said there's no magic answer. Fewer communities, a much older population and a continued migration to the St. John's region is almost inevitable.

But, he said, the government is taking action.

"One of the unfortunate things in this province is the fact that for every 100 people that we have going into the workforce, there is 125 coming out," he said.

"So just do the math on that and we realize we've got to certainly increase our initiatives and opportunities to make sure we do have an adequate workforce, and these are challenges we've faced before and [are] now brought to the surface."

The government is implementing a strategy to replenish the depleting labour force by encouraging more immigration, modernizing the provincial college system, and focusing on ways to become more productive and innovative.

That strategy also includes greater co-operation among neighbouring communities, supporting industries — such as aquaculture, agriculture and tourism — and adapting to changes in the fishery.

"I don't think anybody's at a point right now to give up on anyone, but we have to be resourceful," said Hawkins.

But as the province struggles through a financial quagmire, the high cost of providing the province's remote communities with public services is a delicate topic that's generating growing discussion.

The province spends $73 million annually, for example, on an intra-provincial ferry system that services less than 11,000 citizens.

Hawkins makes no apologies for this spending.

"People that are living in areas, whether it's Fogo Island or Bonavista or Bell Island, they're expecting a level of service and we have to provide these services," he said.

"And the taxpayers, whether it's paying for services within St. John's or outside, we are a province and we will continue to do that to the best of our ability."

Meanwhile, Hawkins said his department is eager to work in co-operation with organizations such as the Harris Centre, adding "we have to come to grips with the challenges."