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The decline of the West

Common Voice Northwest is worrying about the decline of the West. Not the decline of western civilization predicted by historian Oswald Spengler in 1918. Not even the decline of the U.S.A. heralded by Donald Trump.
David Robinson Economist, Laurentian University Director, Institute for Northern Ontario Research and Development.

Common Voice Northwest is worrying about the decline of the West. Not the decline of western civilization predicted by historian Oswald Spengler in 1918. Not even the decline of the U.S.A. heralded by Donald Trump. Common Voice is worrying about the population decline in the northeast.

The poster for the Common Voice conference in September said, “We are destined to see a significant reduction each year in the number of residents available to work in our businesses, industries, institutions and governments.” Between the 1996 census and the 2011 census the population fell by more than 8 per cent. The provincial Ministry of Finance expects the decline to continue for at least 20 years.

Only the northwest is projected to grow and that only slightly. It will have a small effect. The Kenora district may be almost as big as Sweden, but it has a population smaller than North Bay. Forty per cent of the population self-identifies as Aboriginal. North of the Albany, the old Patricia District consists almost entirely of remote First Nations communities accessible only by floatplane or winter road. Birthrates are relatively high in this area, which explains the projected population growth.

That projected population boost may be an illusion. Stats Canada assumes that birthrates in the district will not change. Birthrates fall with increased education levels and especially with higher female education rates. Education rates among women in Kenora are notably higher than among men and are rising.

The Kenora District illustrates the most significant challenge for the northwest: building a genuinely equal and integrated bicultural society. Of the major cities in Canada, only Winnipeg has a higher proportion of citizens with an Aboriginal identity than Thunder Bay. Statistics Canada predicts that by 2036, the Aboriginal population of the city will be about 15 per cent of the total population, up from 8 per cent. The city will add 5,000 to 8,000 people of Aboriginal descent and will lose about the same number of non-Aboriginal descent. Thunder Bay will be the regional capital for Aboriginals.

The city’s influence in the North, including the Ring of Fire, depends entirely on how influential the city’s Aboriginal population becomes. The Ring of Fire is technically in the northwest only because of an accident of history. It is likely to end more strongly linked to the northeast than the northwest as the transportation system develops. There is even a danger that a western route will bypass Thunder Bay, linking the region to Winnipeg and the U.S.A. If the province foresees this danger it may promote routes to the east. There is also a powerful geographical argument for linking the Ring of Fire to the population and industrial centres of the Atlantic coast. No matter what route is chosen, the Ring of Fire will only bring small gains to Thunder Bay.

Common Voice Northwest is concerned about how the population decline will affect the economy, especially taking retirements into account: “Over the next 25 years we need at least 50,000 workers just to keep existing operations going. This does not include economic growth that has been projected through new mining opportunities across the northwest.” In fact, far fewer are likely to be needed.

Spengler thought that the decline of the west was inevitable. Mario Polèse and Richard Shearmur argue that regions like northeastern and northwestern Ontario are also doomed to decline. In “Why Some Regions will Decline,” they reported on five resource-dependent regions in Quebec. Populations in the Gaspé, the lower St. Lawrence, the North Shore Saguenay-Lac St. Jean, and Abitibi-Temis all peaked between the mid-’70s and the mid-’90s.

Polls and Shearer question the idea that “a community (or region) can and will ‘grow’ if it correctly organizes itself.” There are powerful forces at work. Declining birthrates and the attraction of urban centres exert a steady downward pressure. It becomes almost irresistible when technology is steadily reducing the labour needed across the resource sector.

The best response may to start planning smaller, more compact, more efficient and more livable communities, and to focus more on retirement, education and quality of life. Let’s hope Common Voice Northwest is not sidetracked by more popular but less realistic goals.