By Daniel Mullen
The recent discussion that Prince Edward Island needs an increase in overall population appears to be entirely off the mark. We see rural areas being emptied out with the population becoming increasingly concentrated in Charlottetown, and to a lesser degree, the smaller towns around the Island, principally due to the demographic shift but let us call it plainly for what it is: Islanders are getting older.
Successful trading nations such as Germany and Japan are also seeing their populations getting older, but they have industrial, research and development, and investment policies to drive innovation and productivity, leading to growing exports and a high standard of living from industry-led earnings. One could also argue that those societies have focused on social harmony, stability and general ‘law and order' as part of the social contract with their citizens. Both nations now face the demographic cliff of rapidly aging populations with birthrates far below the 2.1 per woman level required to maintain current levels, and will need to either consider far-reaching immigration reform, as in parts of Germany, or scaling back infrastructure, as seen in the formerly communist-controlled states of then-East Germany, where net out-migration matches perfectly with that of rural P.E.I.
What is key there is opportunity: the few young people left growing up in declining regions are going to the larger metropolitan areas where quality of life is perceived to be better: consistent medical care, better educational opportunities and importantly, reliable policing and other services. The trend appears irreversible and local governments are, along with closing clinics and schools, ripping out water and sewage lines to limit the maintenance costs for shrinking communities.
For Prince Edward Island, the situation is similar, in that many aspiring young Islanders head off to other provinces for a superior set of choices: more schools, more job opportunities and more social interaction. For some, they will return after a few years, while others may decide to "come back to retire" while the rest only re-appear on the Island each summer to reminisce about how things used to be. The result is clear: government has the cost of the population in their formative years, educating them and providing health care services, only to see them go elsewhere during their most productive years, when they pay taxes, spend relatively high disposable incomes, and critically, set down roots to form families, where the virtuous circle of growth and development continues, far from where they began, and then return to P.E.I. to enjoy their golden years, again placing strains on government health delivery.
So to argue population is the problem is to miss the point entirely: the province first must deliver excellent services and so-called quality of life ‘touch points' such as readily available quality health care, a trustworthy and transparent political system, and a policy framework that rewards investment in all sectors, not just the winners and losers as has long been determined through what many consider inept or even incompetent plans, policies and ‘initiatives'.
Once Prince Edward Island is truly open for business - not just call centres and casinos - business will take note and investment will begin, with jobs soon to follow. Those jobs thus deliver revenues to the province and to the local communities, which leads to growth and development; the virtuous circle can finally begin to replace the vicious one the Island has now.
What do we need, beyond what is listed above? A sea change in government thinking alone is just a start: we also need action. We can take the example of the rural broadband initiatives that were supposed to bring the Island population online.
Decades ago, an enterprising man made a small fortune in rural P.E.I. by following the crews rolling out electrical lines to the countryside, bringing refrigerators and televisions to people who never knew they needed the appliances, but who within weeks could not live without them. Electricity and telephone service are considered essential services now, and are the lifeblood of small businesses throughout rural P.E.I., but times have changed, and now businesses need something more, such as reliable data and Internet connections. The provincial government created a policy and gave Aliant a mandate to hook up everyone to ‘high speed Internet' or what the world would call ‘broadband access'.
The proposal seemed sound, but the results are mixed: many Islanders still have no access to DSL or cable Internet because they live in thinly-populated areas where it is "not economically feasible" for the big telephone and cable companies to install their lines, despite promises made to governments. Aliant instead puts people on cellular phone data plans with ‘wireless dongles' to get online, an approach that is deeply unsatisfactory for families with more than one device at home, and entirely impractical for businesses that rely upon fast, reliable connections to get things done. This becomes an issue of rural development, from a graphic designer who cannot work from a home office due to poor Internet access, to small shops and manufacturers that have to move to where they have better access to essential infrastructure. This leads to lower demand in poorly-served areas, thus making it even less of a paying proposition for Aliant to put in the necessary wired infrastructure.
Other options exist for getting every Islander and perhaps more importantly, every rural Island business connected, but government appears to be not aware of them. Not only is this disappointing from a policy perspective, it also means that everything from a web cam so that Grandma can see her new grandchild without the long drive into town, to sending engineering diagrams to a welding shop out on a back road, is either simply not possible or affordable. While some may dismiss this as a minor matter, experience beyond P.E.I. points to far-reaching effects, such as in Great Britain, where property values can vary by more than the equivalent of $10,000 for identical homes, even on the same street, where one has access to broadband and the other does not. Remote monitoring, with alarms and video cameras, for cottages with access to broadband connections can reduce or even eliminate the odds of an off-season break-and-enter, just as businesses can use broadband to do everything from keeping an eye on newly cut wood and tracking trucks and equipment that is parked somewhere out in in the country, to getting remote maintenance of highly specialized equipment that would otherwise require a costly service call and result in excess downtime for the business.
This is just one of many things that needs to get tackled right away, but until these issues are handled - and handled properly - there is no point in talking about drawing in more population until the government gets its house in order. To do anything else is to simply push on a string.
Daniel Mullen of Charlottetown holds a master of business administration degree from the University of Liverpool and was a director at AOL, an online services provider with more than 30 million users.