This is an unedited version of a #nextcity column that appeared in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal on Feb 11, 2012
Montreal’s Trudeau Airport is lined with advertisements from the bank HSBC that highlight how the global economy has changed the very way we live. Walking through the airport’s corridors earlier this week, one of HSBC’s factoids caught my eye: each day, 200,000 residents of the countryside leave some part of the world for the city.
The reason this ad grabbed my attention was that it affirmed just how global the economic forces underlining the latest Census data truly are – New Brunswick, just like virtually every other corner of the planet, cannot escape the trend toward greater urbanization.
The 2011 preliminary Census results themselves were interesting on their own merits for a number of reasons ( I hope to address NB’s growing suburban communities, and the rising population count in Saint John’s urban core, in future columns), yet I am most interested in how the latest census numbers may shift the way in which policy-makers seek to shape the economic direction of our now urban province.
Taken as a whole, New Brunswick’s population numbers aren’t much to celebrate. While our growth rate was almost 3 percent, the largest it has been in over three decades, this was yet another census period in which the NB growth rate has lagged behind the rest of Canada. While it is better to be growing than shrinking (just ask Edmundston today, or Saint John circa 1996, which they’d prefer), the simple fact remains: New Brunswick is becoming less and less relevant to Canada’s key decision-makers, as we are no longer big enough to be heard, at least not without a struggle . To maintain a national voice, we’re going to have to be more imaginative, more creative, and more bold in just about all that we do.
Ironically, while one of the reasons New Brunswick grew less quickly than other provinces was because the allure of the big city (be it Toronto or Montreal, or increasingly Calgary) continues to take New Brunswickers beyond our provincial boundaries, the very fact that our growth rate was more robust than previous census years was in large part because our own big cities (admittedly, quite small on a national scale) also became a place that more New Brunswick residents were willing to call home. Overall, the total population of New Brunswick grew by over 21,000 from 2006 to 2011. In the urban regions of Moncton, Saint John (both CMAs) and Fredericton (CA), the number of new residents actually grew by close to 26,000, suggesting that urban New Brunswick produced virtually all of the province’s net growth.
How has this urban growth shifted the political and economic balance of power in New Brunswick? According to the 2011 data, the three urban regions of New Brunswick account for 48% of the province’s population, a voting bloc that will be sure to dominate a 49 seat legislature, once the seats are redistributed. Add Oromocto to the mix, and the percentage of New Brunswick that is either near or within the three communities approaches 50 percent. (For some reason, Statistics Canada doesn’t consider Oromocto part of Fredericton’s urban region – an odd decision, given the political clout of the late Fredericton-area MP Milton Gregg made Oromocto the administrative HQ of CFB Gagetown, and not the other initial choice, the Saint John bedroom community of Welsford. If Oromocto was added to Fredericton’s urban region, the provincial capital would likely join Saint John and Moncton as a full-fledged Census Metropolitan Area.)
That shift toward the three cities will be sure to change much of the way in which New Brunswick is governed, as urban-centric economic files (be they NB’s small, but nimble IT sector) or issues (the relative lack of quality rental housing, or rising property tax bills) become of more paramount importance to parties seeking to gain control of the provincial legislature. While New Brunswick’s rural communities will no doubt continue to demand (and in many cases deserve) equitable government service, the urban-rural debate will likely get a lot more divisive, as fewer MLAs will come from rural ridings. If our next legislature is to have six fewer MLAs, there is a very real possibility that five of the lost seats will be from the province’s North.
While our politics may get messier in the near term, there is no turning the clock back for New Brunswick. Urbanization is a global phenomenon, and our province can’t escape its inevitability. Well before the next census, our youngest residents will continue to seek out the bright lights and big city, but if we’re smart, we’d try to find ways to ensure that bright lights are shining here in this province.
In short, provincial policy makers have a choice. We can invest in Fredericton, Moncton and Saint John (if not the downtown cores of Edmundston or Miramichi), and make New Brunswick’s urban life as attractive economically and culturally as it is in Canada’s leading metropolitan areas. If we do, our children and grandchildren can have a vibrant future right here. If we don’t make the right investments, that future may quite likely be in Montreal, Toronto or Calgary, and we’ll see them over the Christmas holidays.
I know that when my children grow up, I’ll want to see them more than once a year.