17 October 2016

Caribous, Choice, and Craziness #nlpoli

For a while, it looked like one of the island's major communities wouldn't be able to put a senior hockey team on the ice for the new season.  Low ticket sales were threatening the Clarenville Caribous.  After a bit of publicity,  the team managed to sell enough tickets to finance the team.

There's no way of knowing if changing demographics were affecting the Caribous.  Clarenville has enjoyed a small boom driven largely by Hebron construction at Bull Arm. As that project is winding down,  the local economy is likely to shrink a bit.  Maybe some folks didn't want to shell out for hockey tickets given the local economic slow-down and the potential for more taxes or cuts coming from the provincial government.

We shouldn't be surprised, though, if more and more of these sorts of stories turn up as our population shrinks,  gets older, and migrates into some of the major centres, particularly St. John's.  After all, we've heard from municipal leaders over the past couple of years that some towns are having a hard time finding employees or even enough people to form a council.  In some places, councilors are picking up garbage and doing other jobs that the town would normally hire someone to do.
There are already parts of the province where the youngest person in the community is in his 50s or where they don't have any school-aged children. Things have been that way along the northeast coast and on most of the southern shore for the past 20 years.  Demographic changes are now so obvious that politicians actually acknowledge they are happening.  Not so long ago, they would have denied it furiously or, as happened in one legendary incident, lambasted the reporter who did a series on the ageing population.

Talk is one thing.  What we haven;t had from any politicians yet are policies that take demographic change into consideration.  Sure, they created a department of seniors but that's not really the sort of thing the government needs to do.

You see,  the demographic changes are producing a few consequences.  We are getting older, on average. That means we can see pressure for more health care spending and less of a need for grade schools.  We are also moving out of smaller communities along the coast and moving into centres. Population growth in St. John's, for example, has been driven in recent years by movement within the province.  Our population is also shrinking.

All of that will affect services in every way. Unfortunately, the best we have seen from official sources is the rather trite approach to the fact that about 70,000 people will retire in the years ahead as the baby-boomers reach retirement age.  Lots of job opportunities for "us",  the government and its allies cheered at the time.  The real implication was - as some of our towns have already seen - places where towns cannot find people to do the jobs.

The story from some towns across the island and in parts of Labrador is that we apparently already have communities that aren't viable any more.  There are a bunch more who are approaching the same state.  Not enough people to cover the costs of running the town.  No one available to provide basic services to local residents. No children.  No young people. There are towns in Newfoundland and Labrador today that will not exist within the next five to 10 years. The situation is that stark.

What the provincial government should have been doing, starting maybe 10 or 15 years ago, was planning its services and capital works based on where those trends are heading. What we have been getting instead - since 2003 - has been every effort to use public money to prop up communities.   The most recent government master plan is really just more of the same.  The economic development ideas - restore the groundfish fishery and expand agriculture, for example - are not about supporting initiatives where there is growth potential.  Rather, these are thinly-disguised efforts to pour more government money into schemes to keep in places the local economy won't sustain any more.

We have spent decades fighting the changes that happen naturally in societies around the globe.  Take a good look at the fishery and where people live.  Many of the communities along the northeast coast and into Trinity and Conception Bays, for example, date from a time when fishing technology was powered by human muscle.  People built their homes and fishing stages on a piece of land near a local fishing ground. The advent of new technology like gasoline engines and nets didn't alter the basic geography of the fishery.

The changes in the 20th century did.  Not only was living next to the fishing ground of no material advantage,  the technological change made it financially more profitable to use larger vessels and different ways of catching fish. The small-boat, inshore fishery should have disappeared. Government policies and government subsidies after 1949 not only forestalled change in the fishery, they encouraged more people to enter the fishery even though the industry was already overloaded. Government policies also propped up a gaggle of fish plants and keep thousands of workers in short-term jobs making pathetic wages.

This is another way that government plays an inordinately large role in the economy of Newfoundland and Labrador.  The bureaucrats and the politicians in the provincial government know that one of the reasons they spend so much money each year to provide basic services is that we deliver them to a raft of small communities all over the place. They also know that few things would raise public ire faster than suggesting that some communities need to close.

In fact, the resettlement idea is so politically unpopular that the existing government program makes it virtually impossible for communities to resettle voluntarily with government financial assistance. McCallum is a small community on the south coast of the province.  You can only get there easily by boat or by air.  In 2015,  there were 85 residents, six of them under the age of 18.

In a recorded vote, 74% of the adults in the community voted to resettle.  The government policy requires that 90% of residents vote to move before any government cash is available. In Little Bay Islands,  resettlement was held up by one vote in 2013.  In two other communities,  the provincial government refused to resettle residents even though more than 90% voted to leave.

One of the residents called McCallum a dying community but government policy won't help the people move to a better way of life. Instead, government spends more money than it would on resettlement to keep folks living there. Documents released under provincial access to information laws earlier this year showed the government didn't even budget money for resettlement.

It's insane.

The government's latest plan to cure everything, unveiled last Tuesday in St. John's, was long on optimism and short on moral and political heft or economic substance.  Blowing smoke up people's behinds is apparently much easier than actually leading the province somewhere healthy.  Given the provincial government;s financial mess, though, there's actually a question of how much longer they can keep this up.