Northern Peninsula ‘not a rosy picture,’ says population expert

Rob Greenwood says demographics are killing rural communities; better governance needed

By Terry Roberts, CBC News Posted: Nov 09, 2016 7:00 AM NT Last Updated: Nov 09, 2016 7:00 AM NT

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the future is very bleak for the Northern Peninsula and some other rural areas of Newfoundland and Labrador, says an expert in population trends.

Rob Greenwood says demographics — an aging population and plummeting fertility rates — are killing some communities.

“It’s not a rosy picture,” said Greenwood, executive director of Memorial University’s Harris Centre, which specializes in regional policy and development.

A ‘wonderful’ way of life is threatened

A recent report by the Harris Centre shines a troubling spotlight on the Northern Peninsula.

One projection forecasts the region will see a population plunge of more than 40 per cent over the next two decades.

That’s not a surprise to Nita Hughes, owner of the last remaining business in tiny Green Island Cove.

She sells gasoline and convenience items, working 10 hours a day, but business is slow.

“I would close it now but my husband don’t want me to close it,” says Hughes.

“Sometimes I gets tired of it. You know what I works for? Two dollars an hour. I’m just hanging on — just staying afloat.”

A bleak situation, and Greenwood says similar scenarios are playing out in regions like Southern Labrador, and some areas of the south and northeast coasts of Newfoundland.

“Over the next 10 to 15 years, as the boomers move into nursing homes, a lot of those communities where there is a real viable, wonderful way of life today, but largely on pensions, and long distance commuting … that’s going to be gone,” Greenwood said.

‘The research is pretty clear’

Larger communities like St. Anthony, a service centre with some 2,400 people on the tip of the Northern Peninsula, will survive in some form for generations to come.

But many isolated, remote communities won’t be so lucky, he said.

“The research is pretty clear,” Greenwood said.

“If you’re one of the larger, urban centres, relatively speaking, in a rural area like St. Anthony, that has good health care, good shopping, good transportation access with the airport, and a fairly diversified employment base, it’s going to be there in a hundred years.

“But the populations are going to be lower, unless there is a dramatic change in immigration, and we’re going to have to adapt services, in innovative ways, to meet smaller populations where it’s harder to attract various professionals.”

Regional governance model studied

So what can be done if the writing is on the wall for many of these rural places?

There’s no magic solution, but for Greenwood, the key is to adapt to the decline.

And that means a shake-up in the way communities provide local governance, with a greater push towards a regional approach.

“We have the weakest resources at the community level to do anything,” Greenwood said of the hundreds of town councils that provide governance in small communities throughout the province.

Greenwood added there’s a well-known saying that councils are cheap, but services are expensive.

Enhanced services needed

Most communities are within a close commute of one another, and Greenwood said an important web already connects many towns.

For example, people often work in neighbouring communities, and send their children to other communities to get an education.

The missing link, he said, is strong, regional governance similar to the county system used in Nova Scotia, and this shortcoming will become even more pronounced as communities continue to decline.

“We need to really enhance that kind of planning so that you can have more capability for service provision with fewer resources,” Greenwood said.

All sides on board

Greenwood is not a lone wolf touting some far-fetched philosophy, and there are already plenty of examples of regions working together to provide services such as fire protection, water and sewer, recreation and garbage collection.

Joint councils have sprung up in places such as Conception Bay North, with local leaders recognizing the benefits of co-operation.

Regional governance is also supported by groups such as Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador, and the provincial government.

A new regional governance advisory committee is now at work, helping create a potential governance model to fit Newfoundland and Labrador.

And feedback during a premier’s forum on local government last month proved the concept has support.

“The feedback we received highlights the desire to think regionally in order to help sustain rural communities for the future,” Municipal Affairs Minister Eddie Joyce stated in a follow-up news release.

“Will this approach reverse the decline in many communities? Certainly not.”

However, Greenwood said this would save money, “and also really enhance effectiveness of service delivery with fewer people.”