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'Remarkable turnaround': Census figures show the Maritimes are growing rapidly

HALIFAX — After living in Toronto for 25 years, Beth Hitchcock was ready for a change, having grown weary of big city life.

HALIFAX — After living in Toronto for 25 years, Beth Hitchcock was ready for a change, having grown weary of big city life. 

Over the years, the veteran magazine editor had developed an appreciation for the easygoing lifestyle in Nova Scotia, where she had spent time visiting friends and attending a graduate-level course at the University of King's College in Halifax. 

"Whenever I would go back to Toronto, I would be invariably sitting in the back of a cab on the Gardiner (Expressway) in traffic, seeing the city approach — and I would feel sort of depressed," Hitchcock said. "I didn't feel that deep sigh of, 'Oh, I'm home.'" 

In January 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic was making its unwelcome debut, she decided to move to the East Coast, an interprovincial shift that has grown increasingly popular in the past five years, according to new census figures released Wednesday. 

"Nova Scotia sells itself," she said from her recently renovated home in Dartmouth, N.S., noting the relatively reasonable housing prices and, of course, the lure of the ocean. "I craved quiet, I craved ease … Everyone here can find a place of solitude by the water." 

Statistics Canada says that in the past five years, the three Maritime provinces have largely succeeded in reversing a decades-long decline in population, thanks in part to a steady influx of Canadians from other provinces — particularly Ontario and Alberta. 

For the first time since the 1981-86 census, more people moved to the Maritimes from other parts of Canada (134,841) than moved away (98,086). 

Patrick Brannon, senior researcher at the independent Atlantic Provinces Economic Council, said the numbers illustrate a reversal for a economically challenged region once famous for routinely losing too many of its young people to to lure of jobs in other provinces. 

"We're now seeing a lot of people, especially in the second half of 2020 and the first half of 2021, looking to get out of the big cities and go to smaller locations for more space and cheaper housing costs," Brannon said. "The pandemic accelerated some of those trends" 

By contrast, the population of Newfoundland and Labrador declined by 1.8 per cent to 510,550 between 2016 and 2021, mainly because of slumping oil prices and the winding down of some megaprojects in recent years, Brannon said. 

Aside from the Northwest Territories, Newfoundland and Labrador was the only province to post a population decline, though there have been signs that the province's population is now on the rebound, a trend from the last two quarters of 2021 not captured by the census. 

But it's clear that growth in the Maritimes remained red hot.

For the first time since the 1940s, the Maritimes grew at a faster pace than the Prairie provinces. 

"People are cashing out their nest eggs and heading to (the Maritimes)," Brannon said. "A lot of people saw (the pandemic) as an opportunity to get out of the big city and head to a place they felt more safe." 

In the past five years, the population of Prince Edward Island grew by eight per cent — its highest population growth rate on record — to reach 154,331 in 2021. At that rate, P.E.I. was the fastest-growing province in Canada, though Yukon held top spot overall with a growth rate of 12.1 per cent.

Meanwhile, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia grew at their fastest pace since the early 1970s. Nova Scotia's population grew by five per cent to reach 969,383 residents, and New Brunswick posted an increase of 3.8 per cent to reach 775,610 people.

The new census figures also show the region has succeeded in attracting a larger number of immigrants from other countries. New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island welcomed a record number of immigrants between 2016 and 2021, the vast majority arriving prior to the pandemic.

In Halifax, Atlantic Canada's largest city, Mayor Mike Savage doesn't need census figures to tell him the Maritimes have become a people magnet.

"We're seeing people coming here who are younger," Savage said in an interview, noting that in the past two years, almost all of Halifax's new residents arrived from other parts of Canada. "There's been a tremendous change in who's coming here." 

In a relatively short time, Halifax has become a trendy technology hub that is struggling to keep pace with the demand for housing, the mayor said.

The census says Halifax had the fastest-growing downtown of any Canadian city.

"That's not where we were 10 years ago," Savage said. "My own kids want to live here now. We've seen a remarkable turnaround." 

As for Hitchcock, who now works as a freelance writer, part-time designer and journalism instructor, her move to the Maritimes has inspired three of her Toronto friends to do the same. More recently, another Toronto-based couple she knows — both in their 30s — have also decided to head east in March. 

"Strangers reach out to me and ask me about (the move) on social media," said Hitchcock, former editor-in-chief of Canadian House and Home Magazine. "(And) it's not just people approaching middle age or people coming here to retire … It's a massive shift in how people want to live." 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 9, 2022. 

Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press