canada

Newfoundland’s brain drain

Well-educated young people are fleeing the province in record numbers

SUSANNE HILLER August 28 1995
canada

Newfoundland’s brain drain

Well-educated young people are fleeing the province in record numbers

SUSANNE HILLER August 28 1995

Newfoundland’s brain drain

Well-educated young people are fleeing the province in record numbers

It is Friday night in downtown St. John’s. On the outdoor patio of George Street’s rollicking Sundance Saloon, a group of people in their 20s vibrate to the funky tunes of blaring dance music. They are having a good time—or so it seems. But amid the din, Maria Hutton, a 23-year-old linguistics graduate who currently holds part-time jobs as a bartender and a promotions officer, complains that of the 15 people she is carousing with, only one will still be around in the fall— and it won’t be her. Greg Divine, 22, who graduated this spring with a bachelor of commerce degree from Memorial University in St. John’s, says he is not even bothering to look for work in the province. “I know, realistically, there isn’t the type of opportunity here for what I am looking for,” he says.

Divine is far from alone. No work. No prospects. No money. Such are the realities for a growing number of young Newfoundlanders. At a time, ironically, when Newfoundland can boast of a highly educated population, it is also losing its best and brightest in record numbers. According to Statistics Canada, 15,037 Newfoundlanders migrated to other provinces in 1994—the largest single-year exodus since 1974. According to economists and sociologists, most of those fleeing are young and well educated. Taken together with a plummeting Newfoundland birth rate, the flight of young people leaves the province with some obviously troubling prospects, including a dwindling and aging population, smaller local markets, decreased federal transfer payments and lower housing prices. “It’s not really the people leaving we should worry about,” says economist Wade Locke of Memorial University. “It’s the province left behind.”

The threat of depopulation is nothing new for Newfoundland. Downturns in the fisheries have historically dictated where islanders lived and worked. People have always left. But, like homing pigeons, most eventually returned. Today’s youth will not return to the old resource-based economy. They have watched their parents get thrown out of the mines, mills and fish plants. They have seen the northern cod, which has drawn Europeans to the island’s offshore banks since before the explorations of John Cabot in the 15th century, disappear. They have witnessed Newfoundlanders’ hopes rise and fall with megaprojects such as the Churchill Falls hydroelectric project, Labrador’s iron ore mines and the Hibernia oil discoveries. Now, for young people like Jude Hall, a 25-year-old St. John’s native who left the province two years ago and who currently works as an associate consultant with Coopers & Lybrand in Toronto, Newfoundland risks becoming what he calls “a retirement home for my parents and grandparents.”

There is a flip side. In a province that was once notorious for its high illiteracy rates, more and more young people are now staying in school. With the fishery offering little work and other opportunities requiring higher levels of education, high-school graduation rates have increased from 50 per cent in 1989 to 77 per cent in 1994—with most graduates intending to pursue post-secondary education. Fifteen years ago, 31 per cent of all Newfoundlanders between the ages of 15 and 44 had less than a Grade 9 education. In 1994, the number was just 15 per cent.

Those trends are much in evidence in the province’s capital. At Vincent’s Café, a popular hangout in central St. John’s, the entire counter staff has a university degree or is working towards one. At the Wicker Emporium, manager Jackie Tobin reports that she recently received 500 inquiries, mostly from overqualified applicants, after advertising for a salesclerk job paying $6 an hour. And at the student employment centre on Water Street, employment officer Paul Goulart says the high number of welleducated people who come in looking for low-skill jobs is depressing. “They are anxious to work and get experience,” he says. “They’ll take anything.”

Many young Newfoundlanders have already resigned themselves to the fact that they must leave. In a survey conducted by the province’s Economic Recovery Commission (ERC) in June, more than half the students participating felt that their job prospects in Newfoundland were inadequate. “There is an awareness among the top kids that they will have to pursue postsecondary degrees and probably leave the province to be successful,” says teacher Jody Gedge, 24, who had a short-term teaching contract last year in the Labrador coastal town of Cartwright. Gedge herself is returning to university this fall to pursue a master’s of science degree—in large part because of the bleak job situation.

In truth, only a dramatic reshaping of an economy with a long reliance on natural resources and government supports will convince younger people to remain. And that, according to Premier Clyde Wells, is exactly what his government is doing. In an interview with Maclean’s, Wells said that the current youth exodus is all part of the shaky transformation to Newfoundland’s “new economy.” It is an economy, he said, that is daily becoming more diversified, more dependent on private-sector than public-sector activity, more entrepreneurial and more market driven. Wells pointed to announcements of new industries starting up in Newfoundland in 1995, some under the much-touted Economic Diversification and Growth Enterprises (EDGE) program, which offers 10 years’ worth of tax breaks to new and expanding businesses that invest $300,000 in the province and meet certain sales levels. The government predicts the EDGE incentives will create 1,000 jobs before the end of 1995. Said Wells: “People may be leaving now in the short term for schooling, but when there is opportunity, I predict they will be back.” Others are not sure. Inside the Ship Inn, a murky pub frequented by the St. John’s arts community, Deanne Foley, 23, nurses a locally brewed Blackhorse beer and considers the premier’s words. Clyde Wells, she notes, came to power on the promise of jobs. Six years later, the unemployment rate has actually risen by three points to nearly 19 per cent. “I’m tired, everybody is tired, of waiting for things to change,” says Foley, who will soon leave to pursue a master’s degree in equality studies in Europe. “People will leave, find decent jobs elsewhere and that’s where they will raise families. Why would they come back?”

To counter such pessimism, the ERC has launched a major campaign touting Newfoundland’s future. Dubbed “Getting the Message Out,” the campaign involves task force members going into schools, universities and colleges to boast about Newfoundland’s high-tech marine and communication industries. But most of all, they promote the vision of specialty enterprises. “There are all sorts of opportunities out there for small businesses,” says executive director Cathy Duke.

‘We just have to make people aware and instil a new entrepreneurial spirit.”

That is no easy task in a place where “closed” and “for sale” signs decorate the streets of both cities and deserted outports. “It’s astonishing for the ERC to give these vague, simplistic suggestions, from their cozy offices,” says Marjorie Doyle, a St. John’s-based writer and broadcaster. Referring to an ERC booklet that cites 150 innovative business ideas, she asks, “What does the sentence, ‘Making movies is a possibility in Newfoundland,’ have to do with an 18-year-old in Tickle Cove?”

But the provincial government is counting on young people like Kimberly Crosbie, 25, co-owner of IES Health Technologies Inc. in the Conception Bay community of South River, to prove it is not necessary to leave Newfoundland to prosper. Crosbie has developed an interactive video geared towards asthma sufferers and has recently negotiated her first major contract with a Canadian pharmaceutical company. Another of the new breed of entrepreneurs is James MacDonald, 23, of St. John’s, who two years ago co-founded Safety First Contracting, a company that provides traffic-control services to construction firms, and who now employs 20 workers. “Small business is the only way to be employed,” says MacDonald. “I think we’ve reached the bottom of the trough and now we have nowhere to go but up.”

And there are others who are inclined to wait and see if the Newfoundland economy can indeed blossom in the 21st century. Among them is sales representative Mark Peters, 26, another recent Memorial graduate. Although his circle of friends is dwindling daily, and he knows he could likely find a better job in Ontario, Peters is not going anywhere. “People say I’m crazy,” says Peters, who works for United Textiles in St. John’s. “But I like the quality of living here. It doesn’t take me a half an hour to get to work, and I don’t have to worry about getting mugged walking home.”

That is a trade-off that countless other Newfoundlanders are only too willing to make. To be sure, they will often think of their slate-grey home by the sea, and they will miss the old familiarity and rhythm of life. But for them, at least, it is time to move on. Back in the raucous Sundance, Hutton says she is leaving to attend cooking school on the mainland. She confides that she eventually wants to open her own fat-free restaurant—but not in Newfoundland. “It would never fly here,” she says with conviction. “I wouldn’t even consider it.” Pushing his way to the bar, 19-year-old Donald Macky of Corner Brook overhears the conversation. “Would the last one leaving the province please turn off the lights?” he quips. It is an old line, but many disillusioned young Newfoundlanders are starting to feel the joke is on them.

SUSANNE HILLER in St. John’s