I am delighted to be here.
I'm delighted to be among you here today and flattered to be asked to be here as a witness, especially with my good friend Alaina Lockhart, whom I give full credit for inspiring this effort, and Ray Ivany, the subject matter expert who is well respected in our region.
They've said exactly what I wanted to say, so I'm going to go further and be much more provocative in what I say. I don't have the expertise, but I am motivated by living in the region, having eyes in our region, and a lifelong passion for the place of my birth. I can only be helpful, I think, if I get right through to what I think are the facts.
We can't do justice to the issue of immigration in Atlantic Canada without dealing with the issue of temporary foreign workers and employment insurance. They're all inextricably linked, so let's frame the problem.
It's not overly apocalyptic to say that if demography is destiny, Atlantic Canada is in a slow-moving death spiral. The facts should not be in dispute: 10% of Canadians lived in Atlantic Canada in 1966; now it's 6.6%. The 2015 Stats Canada numbers showed that New Brunswick had sustained more deaths than births for the first time since statistics were tracked. The region as a whole had the second-lowest fertility rate in Canada. We've lost over 40,000 people in the last 30 years. The population isn't just leaving; it's getting older. The Atlantic region has aged twice as fast as Alberta since 1971. The average age now is eight years older than in Alberta.
Just this week, Stats Canada had even more alarming numbers. The slowest growing part of Canada is Atlantic Canada. New Brunswick was the worst in the country, and the only province that had a negative growth rate; Nova Scotia was right behind it. Saint John, New Brunswick, was the only city in Canada that lost population over the last five years.
We're seeing the consequences play out in this never-ending death spiral. Aging populations cost more, the declining population base results in less equalization, fewer transfers for health and education, less money from income tax, less money raised from consumption tax, and then we have to care for an aging population, which is exponentially more expensive.
The results are starkly visible: universities are struggling for students, our high schools are sometimes half full and, of course, everybody is fighting to keep their school full and we have bed-blockers in all our hospitals.
That vicious cycle is self-perpetuating. Provincial deficits are soaring, and in a desperate effort to staunch the bleeding, provincial governments have compounded the problem by increasing consumption taxes and marginal tax rates to the point where taxation is at capacity in virtually all our provinces. Even worse, skilled workers commuting to the west may conclude at some point that it makes more sense to move there and enjoy lower tax rates than continuing to live at home.
To compound the problem for the provinces, all the levers are held by the federal government: employment insurance, immigration, temporary foreign workers.
Let's start with immigration. Atlantic Canada in particular and much of rural Canada in general have trouble attracting immigrants because we don't have a base of immigrants. Immigrants go where immigrants are; they want to be part of a community. We don't have those communities in large measure. That's why 70% of immigrants in Canada go to Montreal, Vancouver, and Toronto; 65% of all immigrants end up in Toronto. Toronto is booming, with cranes on every corner. That's a good thing for Toronto, but we don't have that jet fuel in our economy.
Public policy supports those centres that have critical mass. When was the last time you saw an immigration minister from Atlantic Canada? Facts are facts; Atlantic Canada only receives about 2.5% of immigrants. We're not getting our fair share, and without a larger base we can't get the critical mass to attract more immigrants. It's a constantly reinforcing negative cycle.
Increasing immigration to Atlantic Canada, I want to say clearly, is not without controversy. Even the citizens of Atlantic Canada are less than enthusiastic about increased immigration. They often ask me why I want to keep bringing people in; they don't have jobs for the people who are here.
A glimmer of hope has emerged in the recent Syrian refugee crisis. Atlantic Canadians welcomed a disproportionate number. A lot of that was for humanitarian reasons, but a lot of it was also blatant recognition that we have a big population problem.
What does all this mean? It means that Atlantic Canada not only has an aging and declining workforce, but also a dramatic shortage of skilled workers, a chronic shortage of willing workers to fill the jobs available. When we fix the problem, we have to fix the hemorrhaging, which brings us to the temporary foreign worker program. That program is desperately needed for everyone, from machine operators to production workers, hospitality workers, whatever you might think. Thousands of jobs are at risk of going unfilled and much production of being shipped out of the region because of a lack of employees. This is not an idle threat. Changes made to the program a couple of years ago resulted in a crisis in our communities, with hundreds of jobs being shifted out of the region.
The provinces and employers are caught in a cruel bind: even though on paper unemployment is high, they have no control over the employment insurance system, and they can't find enough workers to satisfy the labour force requirements. A suspension of the temporary foreign workers program would put at jeopardy at least a billion dollars in the seafood industry alone.
That brings us to the third piece of the conundrum. With unemployment across the region close to double digits, how could we possibly have a shortage of workers? Well, here's the dirty little secret. For many, employment insurance has gone from being a trampoline to being a trap. A percentage of chronic recipients have become so addicted to the opiate of unemployment insurance that they eschew full-time work.
The seasonal nature of part of the Atlantic economy exacerbates the problem. Employment insurance de facto has become a guaranteed annual income program for seasonal industries. It's a fact. In spite of well-meaning efforts from successive federal governments, the problem is getting worse, not better. Decades of chronic dependency have atrophied the skills of this work force and destroyed their resolve to work. The drug of unemployment insurance has sapped the strength of many in our economy, allowing them to avoid tough mobility decisions, and it has promoted poor work practices by employers and employees alike.
We haven't seen the political will at the federal level to do anything about this. In New Brunswick alone, about $800 million is paid each year in employment insurance payments.