Prince Edward Island’s greatest export has always been its people.
From 19th Century days when Islanders seasonally migrated to the Maine lumber woods, to the most recent shuttle migration to the Alberta oil fields, the outflow of Islanders to find work elsewhere has been constant and part of our history.
Coupled with that seasonal out-migration of course has been the more permanent departure of other Islanders, most of them young and well educated, to other parts of Canada where they have secured long-term employment, stayed and raised families.
This tide of out-migration has made Prince Edward Island a very connected and outward looking society. I have always laughed when people ‘from away’, or ‘up along’, call Islanders parochial. For a small place perched on the edge of the continent, nothing could be further from the truth.
Islanders are also very open and accepting of others.
The warm and enthusiastic welcome given to Syrian refugee families is an example of this spirit of openness, as are the efforts being made by the community of Montague to make Amish families feel at home in their new province.
But this turnstile of coming and going is out of balance, and the urgent need to retain and build our population presents the greatest challenge government policy makers have faced in my lifetime.
Premier Wade MacLauchlan expressed that challenge candidly in a speech recently to the Charlottetown Rotary Club, when he reminded the audience that while Prince Edward Island’s population continues to increase, “the reality is that we have more out-migration of young people and in-migration of older residents.”
To put a statistical face on it, more than 6,000 Islanders under the age of 45 have left the province since 2008.
Unlike their ancestors before them, most didn’t leave for seasonal work in the lumber woods or the western grain harvests, but rather to pursue permanent job opportunities in Canada’s major cities.
This exodus of skilled and educated young people is a tragedy of generational proportions.
For without their energy and commitment, how does the province continue to develop?
How do we retain a tax-generating workforce sufficient to provide quality programs and services?
Our premier doesn’t want Islanders to dwell on failures and disappointments, which is an understandable sentiment, but there also nothing to be gained in ignoring reality either.
I have four adult children, all of them proud graduates of the University of Prince Edward Island. One owns a private technology company in Halifax. One has a management career in Calgary with an oil and gas company and the other two are working and living in Toronto.
Even if job opportunities here on the Island presented themselves, I am doubtful if any of them would change their current urban surroundings. Home is where the heart is, and all of my children remain intimately connected to this place, but their horizons are wider.
A new Speech from the Throne will open the upcoming spring session of the Island Legislature, setting out government’s agenda and priorities for the months and perhaps years ahead.
Throne Speeches are usually department store grab bags that contain a little of this, and a little of that, attempts to please everybody, especially ministers whose departments compete for centre stage billing.
But they can also be bold and inspiring if the vision and political is present.
I am hoping Premier MacLauchlan musters some of that visionary thinking and political courage as our elected representatives take their seats once again in Charlottetown.
He should be frank with Islanders about the province’s future, rather than behave like a high school cheerleader in a game definitely being lost.
His government should be willing to face the music, and make the transformational changes necessary to put us back in the game.
For example, government could announce a long-term plan to promote small-scale, diversified agriculture and to switch away from environmentally-devastating corporate potato growing towards more sustainable, organic farming.
The writing is on the wall.
Such a policy would help re-populate rural Prince Edward Island and give us a new green footprint in the world of food production.
Premier MacLauchlan might also seize upon the greying of Prince Edward Island as an opportunity instead of a decline in productivity.
If the demographics do point toward our future as one big retirement home, then why not plan for it?
A Gerontology Institute at UPEI could lead the way, conducting social and demographic research on ageing, and helping to create public policy in areas like income security, long-term care and other health issues effecting seniors and productive ageing.
Our university already has a small Centre on Health and Ageing. There are gerontology research programs in other provinces, however the Island’s size and demographics make us a perfect place to establish a full-fledged Institute of this kind.
It’s just one idea worth considering.
Prince Edward Island will continue to export its young people.
Rather than decry the influx of older residents, perhaps we should be marketing the Island as a retirement destination.
(Editor’s note: Allan Rankin’s column will not be available March 30 - April 20th. The next one will be published in the April 27th Graphic.)