The Grass Isn't Always Greener

April 1, 2015 - In both Northeastern and Northwestern Ontario 17-34 year olds are leaving in droves. My question is, do they know how good they have it here at home?

The next time you are talking to your teenager, you need to tell them this: They have a better chance of getting a job in Northern Ontario than just about anywhere else in this province. In fact, their odds of finding a job here are higher than the national average. That’s right, the grass isn’t necessarily greener somewhere else.

According to Statistics Canada, since 2009 Northeastern Ontario has had more youth in the workforce, more youth working, and fewer youth unemployed than either the province of Ontario or the country as a whole. Northeastern Ontario has been at or above the provincial and national average on these measures for over five years. In Northwestern Ontario that has been the case, with a few dips here and there, since at least the year 2000.

Fourteen years of Northern Ontario leading the country in creating opportunity for our young people, and I am betting this is the first time many of you are hearing this news.

It is not just Statistics Canada data telling this happy tale. As part of an environmental scan I recently did for Confederation College in Thunder Bay, I had an opportunity to look at the key performance indicators for colleges across Ontario. For the period 2007 to 2014, northern colleges, all of them, consistently saw better employment results six months after graduation than the provincial average. Confederation College and Northern College beat the average for the entire period by around four percentage points. In some individual years that gap was as high as ten points.

The message is pretty unequivocal; if you are young, looking to get a start on life, you should seriously consider living, learning and working in the north.

The news, of course, isn’t all good. We are all aware of the grim population statistics in Northern Ontario. A population peak that we reached over twenty years ago. Steady decline ever since. Well, not so steady actually. From 2001 to 2006 population in Northern Ontario actually grew. Not back to our peak, but it did grow. Regrettably, it has fallen, just a little bit, every year since.

On top of that, we are not only fewer, we are older. An upcoming study done for my Institute shows that between 2001 and 2011 the percentage of people living in Northern Ontario who are over 65 has increased by 50 percent. Our average age is now five years older than it was just ten years ago and the aging trend is speeding up. This is bad because older people have this pesky habit of being at the end of their working lives. They retire, produce less, pay fewer taxes, and create fewer jobs for their friends and neighbours.

Rural communities are being hit even worse. Urbanization in Northern Ontario, as in the rest of Canada, is finally catching up with global trends. Urban populations, in both Northeastern and Northwestern Ontario, are actually rising. We find true population decline, and our fastest greying communities, in the rural north.

Youth outmigration, low immigration and falling birthrates are in the headlines so regularly that we accept them as the new normal. The sky has fallen, so we stoop. If anyone is looking for green shoots of hope, they hop a plane or pack the car and head west or south or east.

But young people are starting to wake up to the potential of the north. My own organization has few staff over the age of thirty. Half of my colleagues are people who have come home from Ottawa or Toronto, back to Sudbury and Thunder Bay. At my first Rotary meeting in my new home town of Thunder Bay, the speaker was a young investment advisor well short of his fortieth birthday. A Torontonian by birth as I recall, but my new neighbour by choice. Even as I write this, applications for the eight summer internships my organization has available this year are pouring in. Well over half of them from young people in Toronto, Waterloo, Kingston and Ottawa.

Yet while kids from other regions are lining up for the opportunities here, our kids are still leaving. So, do your part.

Tomorrow at the breakfast table be sure to tell your teen or twenty-something that outside their bedroom window, under all that snow, they can indeed find some grass. And that grass is a heck of a lot greener than what they will find in Toronto or just about any other place they might get to by heading down the road.

Charles Cirtwill is President and CEO of Northern Policy Institute. An independent social and economic think tank based here in Northern Ontario. First published in Northern Ontario Business, April, 2015.

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