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“Representative” by Population in Newfoundland and Labrador

I note from CBC NL that Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Kathy Dunderdale has appointed Ross Reid as  deputy minister responsible for population growth strategy. Dunderdale framed part of her discussion around the challenges associated with the accelerating growth rate of Newfoundland and Labrador’s senior population. Indeed, according to StatsCan Newfoundland and Labrador is on course to having the highest proportion of  seniors of all the Canadian provinces. This is a serious concern. In addition to the lost provincial revenue that accompanies a disproportionately large and retired senior population (tough in the best of times, made worse in periods of economic turmoil), the population imbalance also puts a heavy stress on the already delicate public health sector: a sector which Newfoundlanders regard as a political priority but which demands a considerable (read very large) share of the provincial budget. It goes without saying that as the population ages it will put even greater demands the health care system and the public purse, a point not lost on my former colleagues at Memorial University.

A rapidly aging population in the absence of a contingency plan will also detrimentally affect the lifeblood of rural Newfoundland.  Newfoundlanders are keenly aware of the demographic impact that the collapse of the cod fishery in the 1990s had on  their communities and culture. Rural Newfoundland is a central pillar of the provincial identity and imagination, one needs only to watch the fantastic tourism advertisements which attract visitors from across Canada and the around to world to get a sense of how Newfoundlanders see and like to project themselves to others. The combined phenomena of an uneven population distribution, particularly in rural areas combined with global trend of rural migration to urban centres and educational and economic hubs will be especially hard felt in rural Newfoundland. Ross Reid has his work cut out for him.

I’m not a sociologist or a human geographer, but I did take an interest in the demographic transformation of Newfoundland when I worked at Memorial University. My concern focused primarily on population change and the possible future changes to the number of seats in the provincial House of Assembly. I was interested in what this would mean, broadly speaking, with respect to urban/rural representation and its translation into public policy decision-making, particularly in cabinet. I was lucky to find some interesting and publicly available data at the Department of Finance which contains population forecasts for each of the rural secretariat regions in Newfoundland and Labrador. I presume these are the same data and forecasts which prompted Premier Dunderdale to take action. The data on their own are quite fascinating but difficult to decipher unless they are visualized. Note that Premier Dunderdale in her press conference stated that,

“Our demographic is scary … It’s almost inverse of what it ought to be. Instead of this broad base of young working people at the bottom, and narrowing like a pyramid as you go up to your older people … ours is almost the inverse of that.

To get an idea of what she is talking about, I generated and uploaded some population pyramid time series forecast animations which demonstrate how the demography has changed since the mid 1980s and how the Department of Finance expects the demographic reality to change in the upcoming years. Note that the DofF has estimated several projections. The videos below use the “medium” forecasts. The animations are quite striking, especially when one looks at those areas that have already endured considerable economic stress.

Politics is an art of creative compromise, bold decision-making and the informed awareness of one’s capabilities, strengths and expectations. The government of Newfoundland and Labrador and Ross Reid in particular face a number of challenges if they wish to successfully tackle this problem. That said, oftentimes the most creative solutions emerge in the most pressing of circumstances.

The graphs were made using Stata12 and animated using Keynote. A replication do file which can be used to recreate the graphs can be found here. The dataset used to make the graphs can be downloaded freely from the Newfoundland and Labrador Department  of Finance website. I recommend setting the playback speed to “X2” to experience the full effect of the animations.

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