After the 1992 cod moratorium, Newfoundland and Labrador entered a decade of almost continuous population decline. Out-migration occurred on a larger scale than ever before, the birth rate dropped, and the number of immigrants coming into the province did not offset the number of those leaving. Although urban centres also sustained population losses, it was in smaller communities that the most dramatic changes occurred. Between 1991 and 2001, rural settlements experienced a net loss of almost 48,000 people, representing an 18 per cent drop in population. Areas most dependent on the fishery experienced the greatest losses, including the Northern Peninsula, some parts of the Avalon Peninsula, and the island's northeast and southern coasts.
As a result of such large-scale and sustained out-migration, the province's rural areas are today grappling with significant social and economic challenges. A shrinking labour force and tax base makes it difficult for many small communities to maintain roads, schools, medical facilities, and other public services, which in turn makes it difficult for small towns and villages to attract new immigrants or prevent current residents from moving elsewhere. Continued out-migration disrupts social ties by separating people from their friends or family and may eventually force some rural communities out of existence.
Decreased Tax Base
As the population of rural Newfoundland and Labrador continues to contract, so too do the incomes of rural municipalities. With fewer people paying property and other taxes, many small communities have less money to spend on new roads, bridges, electricity lines, and other public services or to pay down their debts. It is also less economical for the provincial government to maintain schools, health-care facilities, and other resources in places with shrinking and scattered populations. Private businesses, including grocery stores, restaurants, and other commercial establishments, are also less likely to operate in areas that are isolated or have few residents.
As more resources withdraw from rural communities, the standard of living decreases. Residents often have to travel long distances to meet their educational, medical, and consumer needs, or adapt to living with limited access to goods and services often taken for granted in larger centres. At the same time, the populations of most rural communities are aging and therefore in increasing need of medical attention and other public services.
Maintaining the quality of existing services is another problem in rural communities. With few tax dollars available to spend, many municipalities are unable to improve roads, public buildings, and other facilities that have fallen into disrepair. Keeping enough professionals within small communities to provide essential services is also difficult. Rural doctors, nurses, and teachers often have to service a larger number of patients or students than their urban counterparts, making it more difficult for them to provide the same level of care.
A major problem facing rural Newfoundland and Labrador is its seemingly chronic loss of young people to urban centres. Most people leaving small communities are either young adults, between the ages of 15 and 24, or families with young children. Although they leave for a variety of reasons, the most common are to find jobs or to have better access to educational and medical facilities.
The loss of youth has far-reaching consequences for rural communities. Young men and women who would normally become community leaders, establish local businesses, or contribute to the overall vitality of rural places have instead exported their talents and energies elsewhere. Without younger generations to replace the older ones, it will eventually become difficult for many rural communities to exist.
The loss of so many young people has significantly altered small-town demographics. Depleted of their younger generations, rural communities are left with increasingly aging populations. Although Canadian society on the whole is growing older, the change is occurring much more rapidly in rural communities – and especially those in Newfoundland and Labrador – than in metropolitan zones. As rural populations continue to age and young people continue to leave, the labour force will likely shrink and push local economies into deeper decline. At the same time, the aging population places greater demands on the already limited health-care facilities available in rural areas.
The depopulation of rural Newfoundland and Labrador affects the emotional and social well-being of those who remain as well as those who leave. Many people living in small communities have lost at least one friend or family member to out-migration. This disrupts social bonds and decreases the level of support – emotional, financial, or otherwise – that people often receive from those closest to them. Homesickness is also common among many who move away and it is not unusual for emigrants to return home after a short period away, leave again to find work, and perhaps continue the pattern indefinitely.
At the same time, many young children in rural communities grow up knowing they may one day have to leave their homes to make a living or obtain post-secondary education. For generations, rural youth depended on the fishery for employment and looked toward older relatives and neighbours for training. In post-moratorium society, young people can no longer rely on the same fishery that for centuries helped define rural culture and identity. As young people lose faith in their community's ability to provide a prosperous future, pride of place decreases and sense of identity is altered. Some people leave because they want to, others because they feel they have no other option.
Alongside high unemployment rates, other factors contributed to the depopulation of rural communities. North American entertainment and consumer products became more widespread after Confederation and helped change rural values and attitudes. Young people could suddenly compare their own living conditions with what they saw on American television shows or read in magazines and newspapers. Some felt their communities could not offer the variety of services and opportunities available in urban centres and decided to move away. Families with young children also moved to larger centres to have better access to educational, medical, and other facilities.
As a result of depopulation, rural residents are dealing with much uncertainty while adapting to a rapidly changing way of life. Many do not know how long they will continue to live in their communities, while others wonder how many more neighbours and relatives will move away. Young people often have to choose between staying where they are, which often limits their employment options, and pursuing an unknown future in a strange city or town.