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Emigration is not a crime against Manitoba’s economy – Winnipeg Free Press

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Opinion

When I was growing up in Toronto and the surrounding area, there were two questions my parents never asked me.

One was, “When are you going to get married?” My parents separated when I was young and marriage, you know, was not an issue.

The second was, “Will you please promise me that after the school year you will stay in Ontario and never leave again?”

Premier Wab Kinew (centre) chats with attendees before delivering a State of the Province address at a Manitoba Chamber of Commerce breakfast Tuesday morning. (Mike Deal / Free Press)

Premier Wab Kinew (centre) chats with attendees before delivering a State of the Province address at a Manitoba Chamber of Commerce breakfast Tuesday morning. (Mike Deal / Free Press)

As it turned out, after finishing school, I left my home province to do a summer internship at the Calgary HeraldWhen that ended in the fall, I ended up at a gig at Winnipeg Free Press.

I can't say it was all planned: Winnipeg was actually just the first job offer I got as I travelled east, on my way back to my mother's basement in Etobicoke.

I didn't think my decision to leave Ontario and move west was that remarkable. That is, until I was firmly rooted in Manitoba and learned that leaving your home province was a crime against the economy – and potentially contributing to a net loss of population through interprovincial migration.

I watched in stunned amazement as governments of all stripes suffered massive abuses in the face of high levels of emigration, leading politicians to swear passionately that, so help them God, they would find a way to keep the young at home.

The problem is that, apart from avoiding shaming the government for its emigration figures, there is no good reason to ask one's children to resist the temptation to study and work in other cities, provinces, countries or even continents.

Yet the refrain “stay home please” has been a staple of Manitoba’s political leaders’ economic development narratives since my time in the province.

Premier Wab Kinew echoed that theme in a speech this week, pledging to do more to keep young Manitobans at home while attracting people from other provinces to stem the tide of net migration. His remarks came after data released this spring showed that Manitoba lost more than 10,000 net residents to other provinces last year, the largest net migration here in more than four decades.

One cannot blame Kinew for wanting to take part in this promise, but the call for the province's youth to stay at home ignores how unequal the conditions for migration between the provinces really are.

Cities like Winnipeg and provinces like Manitoba are generally at a disadvantage in the battle for interprovincial migration.

It is a medium-sized city (by Canadian standards) in one of the smaller provinces. Young people all over the world, especially if they have not yet started a family, tend to seek their fortune in larger cities.

Younger people also tend to chase a commodity-based boom in provinces where commodities (minerals, oil and gas) dominate the economy.

On such a playing field, can a province like Manitoba really turn an annual net loss into a net gain? Before we consider solutions, it is important to understand that interprovincial migration is going through a rather strange era.

First, we live in a time when urban populations are declining across Canada and most developed countries.

Following the COVID-19 outbreak, millions of Canadians have fled the country's largest cities for lower living costs and less dense conditions. Among our largest cities, only Ottawa-Gatineau, Calgary and Edmonton have seen population growth over the past two years.

The exodus from the big cities is undoubtedly reflected in net migration to the provinces.

In 2023, Alberta added more than 55,000 people through interprovincial migration. However, other than Alberta, only the Atlantic provinces – Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island – saw a net increase in interprovincial migration. These are smaller provinces with much smaller cities.

Provinces that had been among the largest net winners from interprovincial migration, such as British Columbia and Ontario, suffered a net loss in 2023.

Where is Manitoba?

Kinew said out-migration is an important indicator of the health of a province's economy and standard of living. While that may be possible, net out-migration is the result of many factors, only some of which say anything about the relative health of a province's economy.

When a resource boom overheats one province's economy and attracts workers from across the country, it doesn't necessarily mean that other provinces' economies are “bad.” Manitoba has a diversified economy that, while it doesn't experience the highest highs, also avoids many of the lowest lows.

Unfortunately, when the numbers are against you, telling people that a net loss in migration is no big deal is not a good political strategy.