News / Halifax

Teetering population: Cape Breton trying to survive as young people leave in droves

Fifteen-year-old Taylor O’Brien says the lure of more opportunities in the West has her thinking a move to Alberta is in her future after she completes Grade 9 at Bridgeport school in Glace Bay this June.

She says the plan is to move to Fox Creek, Alta., a town in the heart of that province’s oil industry. Her father lives there and O’Brien says she wants to move in July, in time to get settled and begin high school there in the fall.

“I really thought it through. I want to move,” she says.

“I’m too used to being stuck around here. It gets old after a while … seeing the same places. I see the Mayflower Mall like 10 times a week. I just want to explore.”

Sydney resident Thérèse Begg, 32, along with her spouse, intend to leave Cape Breton in the next couple of years for either Ontario or British Columbia.

It’s due to a lack of nightlife in the downtown and the small number of quality restaurants, she says.

Despite making a decent living as a baker and her partner being a machinist, Begg says it’s the lifestyle that’s driving them away from her hometown.

“There’s no variety of anything to do. Everybody goes to the hockey game, go to Tim Hortons, and they go to the movies. And that’s pretty much all there is to do,” says Begg, who grew up in Sydney but lived in Halifax for 10 years before returning in 2010.

In its attempt to turn around the economy of the region, Cape Breton regional council has been battling to keep its youth in the Cape Breton Regional Municipality.

People in the 20 to 39 age groups are at the forefront of the exodus from Cape Breton, and keeping them here is no easy feat.

The stories of O’Brien and Begg are examples of what the municipality is up against as the CBRM’s population teeters at 100,000.

Statistics Canada’s population estimates indicated there were 100,823 residents in the CBRM as of July 1, 2013.

With an approximate decline in the population by one per cent or slightly more each year, the CBRM could have already passed through that psychological barrier and could have 99,999 or fewer residents.

CBRM’s economic development manager John Whalley says he’s more concerned about the rate of decline, which isn’t showing any signs of slowing down.

“It’s actually accelerating,” he says.

“Cape Breton Island, in terms of rate, saw the biggest decline of any region in the country, according to this (Statistics Canada) data, and CBRM, obviously, constitutes a big part of that.”

In 2012-13, the figures show the CBRM lost 931 people to interprovincial migration to other parts of Canada, and a further 301 people moved to other areas of Nova Scotia (known as intraprovincial migration).

The other municipalities in Cape Breton are worse off with declines in population from the 2006 to 2011 census years at 4.6 per cent for Richmond County, 5.7 per cent for Inverness County, and 6.3 per cent for Victoria County.

Whalley says long-range projections from consulting firm Stantec estimate the CBRM’s population in 2031 would be approximately 78,000.

The island’s population is estimated to shrink to 102,000 from its current size of 134,535 people.

And the province has to also start seeking solutions as Nova Scotia’s population declined by about 4,000 citizens in the last census, he notes.

“Nova Scotia’s manufacturing base has really declined, particularly in regions like Cape Breton,” he says.

“Unless there is some form of a significant manufacturing strategy for the province, I don’t see us being able to tackle this issue at all because I just don’t see us being able to compete with the type of jobs that are available in other regions of the country.”

Cape Breton University political scientist Tom Urbaniak says he believes the province has been “ambivalent” when forced to address the situation of decline, particularly in Cape Breton.

“I’m not quite sure anyone knows what to do next,” Urbaniak says in an interview.

He says the recently released Ivany report into the state of the Nova Scotia economy did not provide examples of how other struggling economies reinvented themselves under challenging circumstances.

Focusing development on a central urban core while embracing newcomers of all origins should be part of the way forward, Urbaniak says.

“(It’s) creating that quality of place,” he says.

“Having easy access to a multiplicity of amenities, both in terms of basic services but also in terms of culture and the arts, recreation, entertainment, and a high level of safety and good, mutual support networks and a vibrant non-profit sector. All of that is part of the mix.”

And there are those who still want to be part of that mix.

Many people who left the island in search of employment decades ago are now deciding as they reach their retirement years to move back home.

Sydney Mines native Mary Arlene Aitken is one of those people.

In her 50s, she bought property eight years ago with her husband in Georges River, outside North Sydney, with the intention of moving there permanently within the next two years.

Even after spending 35 years living in Hinton, Alta., she says she “can’t stay away” from Cape Breton.

Doubts are creeping in, however, considering Nova Scotia’s high rate of taxation and gasoline prices that can’t compare to the relative bargain basement deal of $1.139 in Hinton.

“I think this will affect the length of our stay. Perhaps I’ll only stay for the summers in Cape Breton and move back to Alberta in the winter. I might end up doing that because … the cost of living is so high down there,” Aitken says.

She says she was able to make Hinton her home because of the number of Cape Bretoners — more specifically, Northsiders — living in her community.

“I think there’s a gentleman just down the street from me that’s from Sydney Mines. There’s still probably about 20 people in Hinton originally from the Northside area.”

Many who decide to move view familiarity and strong bonds with just as much importance as a good job.

Begg says the fact many family and friends have already left Cape Breton makes her decision to leave easier.

Her oldest sister’s family moved to Halifax last summer because of a lack of activities in Cape Breton for her two young children, says Begg.

Her parents are also in the process of moving to Ontario to be closer to another one of Begg’s sisters.

“They’re all moving away,” she says in a strained tone.

“The majority of my friends are based in Halifax, and they’ve all but left. My last very best friend is moving at the end of this month to Toronto. They’ve all moved on to Ontario, Alberta, B.C. even.”

It won’t be long before she does the same, emphasizing the need to plan the move well in advance since there are many expenses to consider.

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