Liberal Leader Zack Churchill climbed out on a limb the other day by raising concerns about over-population in Nova Scotia. In a commentary published in the Chronicle-Herald Churchill wrote that the province’s infrastructure isn’t keeping up with current population growth, let alone future growth required to reach the PC government’s goal of doubling the population by 2060.

Criticizing immigration levels remains off limits for mainstream Canadian politicians and Churchill did not specifically cite immigration as the cause of the over-population problem. However, because immigration – both permanent and non-permanent – has been the main source of population growth in Nova Scotia over the last few years, you can’t raise doubts about over-population without also calling into question the pace of immigration, something Churchill tries to work around. As he put it in his op-ed:

I’m a descendent of Lebanese immigrants. In my 14 years working in politics I’ve met a lot of families who have come to Nova Scotia and helped shape the economic, societal and physical landscape of our province, and we’re better off because of those contributions. But at what point do we stop to consider how much demand we are putting on the system and what our capacity is?”   

A fair enough question, and Churchill points out that Nova Scotia’s population increased by 29,000 in 2023, slightly above the number that would be required every year to hit the two-million-by 2060 target the Houston Conservatives promised in their 2021 platform. Of course, the Tories also promised to fix front line health care and the housing crisis. Those commitments are, to put it kindly, works in progress while their promises on population growth have been kept, and then some. Between July 2021 and July 2024 preliminary estimates from Statistics Canada show population growth of 80,570, an average of about 26,860 a year.

So given the growing pressure on the health care system, homelessness, skyrocketing rents and crowded classrooms it is reasonable to ask whether that rate of growth is sustainable. But before having that discussion it would be useful to provide context that’s missing from Churchill’s article.

First, he should stop trying to make our population challenge into a partisan issue by referring to “the premier’s goal.” Perhaps 29,000 a year is too high, but there has long been a political consensus that Nova Scotia’s population needs to get larger and younger and the primary way to do that is through increased immigration. The Liberal McNeil government Churchill was part of lobbied Ottawa for  a share of immigrants proportional to Nova Scotia’s population. Over the three years of elevated population growth, that is more or less what has been happening. For example, between July 1, 2022 and June 30, 2023. Nova Scotia, with 2.64 percent of the Canadian population, received 2.42 percent of immigrants, including both permanent and non-permanent.

By the same token, the McNeil government bears a large part of the responsibility for the infrastructure challenges Churchill refers to. The Liberals talked up population growth but did little to ensure that housing and the necessary health and educational facilities would be there when the hoped-for newcomers arrived. 

Growth stalled?

Finally, there’s the possibility that the goal of two million population is just pie-in-the sky. The rate of growth is showing definite signs of slowing down. According to Statistics Canada data released June 19, in the first quarter of 2024 growth was down almost 60 percent from the first three months of 2023, from 7,608 to 3,181. If Churchill was aware of these latest facts, he did not let them get in the way of his argument.

Migration to Nova Scotia from other provinces, an unexpected post-pandemic bonus, went from 2,554 in 2023 to a negative 195 from January to the end of March this year. And non-permanent residents, the source of a large chunk of the 29,000 growth Churchill is worried about,  netted out at only 289 in the first quarter, down from 2,033 in the first quarter of 2023. (And note to Churchill, the federal Liberals are largely responsible for the sharp increase in non-permanent residents across the country).The one area of significant population growth in Nova Scotia in the first quarter was net permanent immigration, which set a quarterly record, registering 3,825, up slightly from 3,768 a year earlier.

The overall downward trend in the population growth in the first quarter could be a blip, but StatsCan’s experts don’t think so. A few days before Churchill’s op-ed appeared, there came more inconvenient information – Statistics Canada released its latest population outlook, projecting that Nova Scotia’s rate of population growth will slow down in the near future and will continue to moderate over the next 25 years.

The projections look forward 50 years to 2073 for Canada as a whole and 25 years to 2048 for individual provinces. Based on assumptions about fertility, life expectancy, immigration and interprovincial migration, projections are combined into low, medium and high growth scenarios. A medium growth scenario projects a Canadian population of 62.8 million by 2073, with a disproportionate share of growth going to Ontario and west. And if recent trends continue, StatsCan projects that the relative weight of the population of Nova Scotia and other provinces east of Ontario would continue to decline according to all scenarios. 

For more details Nova Scotia Finance Statistics Division has a fulsome discussion of the projections. But significantly for Nova Scotia there are six different scenarios for interprovincial migration, one of which captures the unprecedented rate of interprovincial in-migration between 2020 and 2023. The scenario produces the top projected population for Nova Scotia of 1,468,900 by 2047-48. That works out to annual average population growth of 16,400, still well short of the 25,000 a year pace required to reach the hoped-for-by-some goal of two million by 2060.

Even though it falls short, the 2047-8 projection of 1,468,900 looks robust compared with some other scenarios. For example, if interprovincial migration returns to the pattern in existence from 2014 to 2017, the population projection for 2048 falls all the way to 1,173,000. That would represent an average growth of only 4,600 a year, made up almost entirely of permanent immigration.

StatsCan’s crystal ball is made a bit cloudy by the fact the agency’s projections assume a reversal in the number of non-permanent residents in Nova Scotia and Canada. Non-permanent residents – mainly on student and work visas with a smaller number of asylum seekers – accounted for some 60 percent of Canada’s and over 45 percent of Nova Scotia’s record population growth in 2023. 

As noted above, net non-permanent residents in Nova Scotia dropped 85 by percent in the first quarter of this year. There was also a downward trend in the other Atlantic provinces. However, the numbers continued to grow elsewhere, leading to a quarter-to-quarter increase of 20 percent nationally. Statistics Canada doesn’t explain why it expects an almost immediate drop in non-permanent immigration but we will soon find out whether its projections on this front hold true.

In the meantime, it would be a good idea for the Leader of the Opposition to make sure his facts are up to date before he initiates a potentially divisive debate.