Until capable handling of the pandemic boosted ratings, the McNeil government had precious little it could credibly point to after seven years as evidence of success. Reduced wait times for elective surgery? No, not yet. A family doctor for everyone? Not quite. Poverty reduction and growing incomes? Not so much. Balanced budgets? Past their best-before. But in recent years there has been one reliable set of statistics to trot out to demonstrate progress – population and immigration growth.

And the beat goes on. Detailed data released this month by Statistics Canada confirm that Nova Scotia’s population was up almost 10,000 in 2019-20. This follows an increase of nearly 11,000 in 2018-9, contributing to a total increase of close to 43,000 since 2015.

The recent increases have been driven by a combination of international and interprovincial migration. For boosters of a certain kind of progress, last week’s news that Halifax was the second fastest growing city in Canada from July 1, 2019 to July 1, 2020 was icing on the cake.

The 2019-20 increase would likely have been even larger but for the impact of the pandemic on immigration and non-permanent residents, a factor that had an even greater effect between August and October, when overall population dropped slightly. But as of Sunday, the Statistics Canada population clock has the province over 980,000, a new high.

Nova Scotia Finance’s Economics and Statistics Branch did its usual thorough job analyzing the 2019-20 numbers. Its take on the Statistics Canada release can be read here. It’s good news that unlike most years in the recent past, population growth has not been limited to Halifax and a couple of nearby counties. Although Halifax accounted for most of the growth, nine other counties had at least small increases.

And the dreaded grey tsunami – prophesied again this week in a report from the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council – is fended off for another year. Nova Scotia’s median age in 2019-20 was 45.0, same as the year before.

Aging elsewhere

This pause in the population aging process is due to a slight drop in median age in Halifax to 39.9. The median age was up in all other counties except Guysborough. Just a few younger families moving in can have an impact on Guysborough, with a population of only 7,400 and a province high median age of 57.8. But the fact that the other 16 counties are all getting older tied in with another observation that emerges from a closer look at the numbers.

While the province’s immigration efforts get most of the attention, it is net interprovincial migration – people moving here from other provinces – that’s maintaining population numbers outside Halifax. That’s a good thing. But the fact that these new and/or returning Nova Scotians tend to be older is driving up the combined median age in the 17 counties comprising the rest of Nova Scotia (RONS, pardon the acronym).

In recent years the main factor depressing population growth in Nova Scotia is not the old familiar “going down the road.” It’s what Statistics Canada calls “natural increase” – births minus deaths – that here translates to “natural decrease.” There were more deaths than births in every county except Halifax in 2019-20, a pattern that has become chronic. A lesser factor is the lure of the big city. All but four counties – led by Halifax with a positive of 876 – lost population through migration within the province.

As Table 1 shows, immigration[1] played only a small part in sustaining population outside Halifax.

Table 1: Components of population change 2019-20

Natural Intra Sub-total Immigration Net Inter Total
Province -1,521 0 -1,521 6,141 3,901 8,521
Halifax      793 876 +1,669 5,138 1,584 8,391
RONS -2,314 -876 -3,190 1,003 2,317 +130

Source: StatsCan Table 17-10-0140-01

As the column in italics shows, the birth-death reckoning, combined with moves within the province left the 17 counties outside Halifax with a population deficit of 3,190. Immigration filled about one-third of that, but the main factor was that about 60 per cent of net immigration with other provinces was to communities outside of Halifax.

As to the age factor, international immigrants, 85 per cent of whom landed in Halifax, were overwhelmingly younger – about 85 per cent were under 40. But it was a different story for interprovincial migrants. Sixty per cent of them settled outside Halifax and the majority were 45 or older.

Migration turnaround

After a string of years during which more people left Nova Scotia for other provinces than moved here from elsewhere in Canada, the trend changed in 2015-6 and grew to reach the 3,901 in net interprovincial migration for 2019-20 shown in the table. And even as the pandemic reduced overall migration in the third quarter of 2020, Nova Scotia saw an increase of 1,471 in net interprovincial migration from July 1 to Sept. 30 (accompanied by a real estate price bubble). The net increase was because a 21 per cent drop in newcomers was more than offset by 32 per cent decline in departures from Nova Scotia to other provinces.

The McNeil Liberals have tended to conflate the welcome turnaround in interprovincial net migration with retention of young people, as they did in last year’s budget address.

“In 2013 parents watched their sons and daughters choose to move out of Nova Scotia for opportunities elsewhere. In 2019, our population increased by 3,461 as people from other parts of Canada came to Nova Scotia.”

Despite the inference,  the reality is that most of the improvement that began in 2015-16 is because people 45-69 are coming here from other provinces and settling predominantly outside Halifax.

Table 2: Net interprovincial migration by age group and year

2017-8 2018-9 2019-20 Total
20-44   833 1,042 1,072 2,947
45-69 1,320 1,616 1,771 4,707

Source: Table 17-10-0140-01

As Table 2 shows, over the last three years, interprovincial migrants 45 to 69 years totalled 4,707, 1,760 more than those aged 20 to 44. And as Table 3 shows, seven of ten of the older demographic located to counties outside Halifax.

Table 3: Interprovincial migrant settlement by age group

Total Halifax RONS % RONS
20-44 2,947 2,304    643 21.8%
45-69 4,707 1,349 3,358 71.3%

Source: Table 17-10-0140-01

The overall picture of interprovincial migration doesn’t change much when the over 70s and under 20s are included. In 2019-20 about two-thirds of each age group settled outside Halifax, with the over 70s totalling 181. But any rejuvenating effect on the overall RONS population by the addition of 550 or so children and youth was offset by the loss last year of more than 900 20-24 year-olds, largely to Halifax or other provinces.

This short excursion into the details of interprovincial migration doesn’t reveal anything too startling. People (like me) moving back after spending years in other provinces is a familiar story. However, among other things, the urban-rural demographic would suggest that many interprovincial migrants may be more interested in enjoying the natural environment than extracting resources from it.

More seriously, the increasing numbers in recent years, and the fact the arrival of newcomers isn’t changing the aging of the population outside Halifax, will have an impact on health services. That’s one more reason why, after letting the issue slide off the agenda, the government should renew the quest for age-based health transfers from the federal government. Nova Scotia needs the fiscal resources to provide Canadians moving here with the prospect of health care that meets national standards.

Immigration and some success in reversing the flow of “sons and daughters” to “opportunities elsewhere” has helped to create boom-like conditions in Halifax. Maybe it’s time to pay more attention to the impact of migration on the rest of the province.



[1] Throughout this report, immigration numbers may not match those appearing in various government documents. I do not include net non-permanent residents in my calculation. Driven largely by international students, those numbers fluctuate significantly and mostly affect immigration totals in Halifax and Cape Breton.