A Tale of Two Countries: How the Great Demographic Imbalance is Pulling Canada Apart, by Richard Saillant, Nimbus Publishing, 2016, 213 pages, $22.95 Canadian.
I knew what was coming when I picked up this book. I’d already read Over the Cliff, Richard Saillant’s stark warning to the people of New Brunswick as to what they must do if they are to avoid bankruptcy of the province. The news is no better in A Tale of Two Countries, but businesses in Nova Scotia, and indeed all Canadians, should read his important message about what he believes the future holds for us.
He contends that those of us living in Eastern Canada — east of the Ottawa River — are aging faster than the rest of Canada and that fact alone will present challenges as the gap widens between us and the younger, wealthier provinces. He presents his analysis of the data available in a clinical fashion that is more convincing than an emotional plea would ever be. He has the evidence, and the message is clear for Atlantic Canadians: In a few years we will not be able to maintain the standard of living to which we’ve become accustomed.
Health care is one example of what will be in store for those of us in the older, poorer provinces. First of all, he dismantles the myth that our national health-care “system” is one of the best in the world. It isn’t really a national system, says Saillant. Since health care is administered by the provinces and they are not all administered the same way, we have 13 different systems. Nor are Canadians treated equally when it comes to health care. Secondly, while our health care is better than that of our nearest neighbour, the U.S., it is somewhere in the middle of the pack as far as the rest of the world is concerned, well behind Japan, Australia, Switzerland, Germany and the Scandinavian countries.
Out-migration and declining birthrates will continue to age our end of the country faster than the rest of Canada, and decimate our coffers too quickly, unless we take immediate steps to turn the situation around. There are several measures we can take, but the author warns us that each presents its own challenge:
Raise taxes. Atlantic Canada is already paying significantly more in taxes than those of the younger, richer provinces, but however painful and unpopular such a move would be, this is also one way to shore up the public purse.
Stimulate more economic growth. This is not easy, given our geographic location and our lack of a major metropolitan centre. However, we do have natural resources we can draw on and the author suggests we may need to take a second look at hydraulic fracturing to extract more oil and natural gas.
Immigration is another hope for the future. How many this region can welcome and how well they can be integrated into the labour market remains to be seen. Realistically, we have less to offer new Canadians than other parts of the country so getting them to stay in our region will be difficult.
Transform public spending. This is a fascinating part of Saillant’s book, and cannot be adequately described in a few lines as this is a theme throughout the entire manuscript. He notes that we have declining enrolment in public schools, yet the cost of educating our children keeps rising without seeing better outcomes. The same is true with health care. We must find ways to bring this spending under control.
Finally, as a last resort, we can look to the federal government to do what it can to avoid creating two classes of citizens in Canada. Until recently, equalization payments did a good job of keeping reasonably equal public services across the country, because our needs were fairly similar. This is no longer the case. Our aging population in this part of the country is driving up the cost of keeping us afloat.
At a time when there are more Nova Scotians over the age of 65 than there are under it, this is a timely read. Richard Saillant is a thoughtful and insightful author who has seen the writing on the wall. I don’t like his message, but as a small business owner in a have-not province, I need to know what the future has in store and I’ll wager most business owners will agree.