PORT HAWKESBURY: A Sydney-based group is looking for support from the town to deal with a steeply declining population.
New Dawn Enterprises wants to develop a regional immigration strategy aimed at attracting and retaining newcomers to Cape Breton. At Port Hawkesbury Town Council’s November council meeting, vice president of development for New Dawn, Erika Shea, shared her proposed solution for the region’s population issues.
“If you can bring in immigrants, you can create economic development, economic opportunity, new jobs, and new wealth in your communities,” said Shea.
Shea pointed out that Cape Breton’s population is declining quicker than ever. Between 1991 and 2016, the population has dropped by nearly 30,000 people. The overwhelming majority of new immigrants to the province are by-passing the rural areas and settling in larger urban centres.
“Somewhere between 87 and 90 per cent of Nova Scotia’s newcomers every year are settling in Halifax,” Shea told The Reporter.
“What we would love to see is an acknowledgement by the province that this is a systemic problem, and something has to change.”
Shea is seeking the support of municipalities in lobbying the provincial government to create a 10-year pilot regional nominee program. She believes that having better control of the immigration process would allow rural areas like Cape Breton to be more successful in attracting newcomers who will remain in the area. Shea hopes that the pilot program would bring in 500 candidates to Cape Breton per year along with their immediate families.
New Dawn has already reached out the provincial government with their proposal.
“May was our first meeting with the deputy minister and some of her senior staff. Since that time, her senior staff have come down to explore our position further, and then we’re headed back up to Halifax at the end of November,” said Shea.
“I think the tradition in immigration has been, first you find a job, and then you find an immigrant to match that job. I think that’s been a pretty pervasive mentality.”
However, Shea believes that a higher population can lead to increased opportunities for everyone. She pointed out Prince Edward Island, a province with a size comparable to Cape Breton, recently implemented a strategy to actively seek out newcomers. She said they have already started to see increased economic growth with their rise in population.
“As their immigration has increased, so have their employment levels,” Shea told councillors. “They developed a strategy, they began to bring people in, those people created economic opportunity, and their economy has grown.”
Last month, New Dawn asked Abacus Data to conduct a public opinion poll to learn how Cape Breton residents feel about increasing the number of immigrants to the island. They found that 63 per cent either support or strongly support an increase, while 18 per cent support an increase with conditions. Shea feels that the public has been receptive overall and hopes to gain more support from policy makers.
Port Hawkesbury Mayor Brenda Chisholm-Beaton agrees that the decline in population is a serious issue.
“I believe it’s up to our region of Cape Breton to roll up our sleeves and get down to work to figure out what we can do to create a population retention and attraction strategy. I think that, as Erika mentioned in her presentation, one of the answers is going to be immigration,” said Chisholm-Beaton. “Any opportunity we have to collaborate with New Dawn is certainly going to help us, and help the bigger picture with regard to Cape Breton.”