FREDERICTON – Coles Island School in New Brunswick has taught children for 58 years but this may be its last.
Over time, enrolment has dwindled to a point where the school now teaches 30 students from kindergarten to Grade 5. Still, Steve McCready and others in the community have fought for five months to save it.
“A school in a rural community is one reason people don’t have to move away,” said McCready. “Any people with younger families would not even consider moving to a community without a school nearby.”
The area’s district education council voted this month to close the school. Its future rests with the education minister, who has up to two months to make a final decision.
The school’s closure is just one way the province’s demographic shift manifests itself.
Here’s another: Statistics Canada reported this month that more people died than were born in New Brunswick last year for the first time since it began tracking such figures in 1972.
Two other provinces — Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador being the others — have also recorded more deaths than births in recent years.
For years, academics and politicians have warned about Canada’s aging population and what it will mean for the country’s social services and its rural communities. Nowhere is that impact more acutely felt than in Atlantic Canada.
“The overall trend is grim,” said Fazley Siddiq, dean of business at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John.
Siddiq said governments at all levels need to make bold moves to address the region’s declining population. One idea he recommends is further amalgamating municipalities like the Nova Scotia government did during the 1990s with the Halifax Regional Municipality and Cape Breton Regional Municipality.
Such a move would improve efficiency in the delivery of public services, he said.
“It is completely irresponsible to have five municipalities in Greater Saint John when the population is around 130,000 people,” he said.
He also suggests the introduction of a baby bonus, a measure that Newfoundland and Labrador implemented in 2008. Parents in that province are offered $1,000 for each child born or adopted and $100 per month for the first year of the child’s life.
The number of births in the province rose slightly after the baby bonus was brought in, but they have since fallen back below 2008 levels, according to Statistics Canada.
Other incentives that should be considered are tax breaks and improved services for immigrants, Siddiq said.
Andre Lebel, a demographer at Statistics Canada, said across North America only Florida has an older population than Atlantic Canada.
Part of what’s driving that is the number of young couples who continue to move westward for work and their families often grow once they do, Lebel said.
“These people are having babies outside of the Atlantic provinces, so it’s increasing the rapidness of aging,” he said.
As the population falls in smaller communities, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain services.
In Cartwright, N.L., Mayor Dwight Lethbridge has been in discussions with the Eagle River Credit Union after it announced plans to close the town’s only bank.
Lethbridge has seen Cartwright gradually lose people because of the economic downturn. The 2011 census pegged its population at 516, down from 552 in the previous survey done in 2006.
Even its middle-aged residents have left to find work elsewhere despite efforts to make the community more attractive, Lethbridge said.
“We’re working like dogs to diversify our small economy,” he said.
For Coles Island, the pending loss of its only school could further deplete the population.
“There’s a good chance that people will have to relocate,” McCready said.