A must-read weekly review of the policy news, issues and events that are driving change in Atlantic Canada

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PPF: Atlantic Momentum Newsletter

PPF’s Atlantic Canada Momentum Index offers proof that the region is on the upswing, outpacing the rest of the country in several key economic indicators. Each week, this newsletter looks at factors either driving or impeding that momentum. Here’s everything you need to know:

The rising tide

The numbers are in and for the second year in a row, Moncton is Canada’s fastest-growing big city. (It’s tied with Kitchener-Waterloo-Cambridge, but still.) Statistics Canada released the population numbers for the year ending July 1, 2023 last week and they showed Moncton grew by 10,351 people to 178,971, an increase of 6.1 percent. That’s the fastest growth rate of any Census Metropolitan Area (a city over 100,000 people) since comparable data has been kept, and it’s twice as fast as the population growth of the country as a whole (2.9 percent).

Halifax was the only other Atlantic Canadian city in the top 10 when it comes to growth, up 3.9 percent, but it reached a milestone of its own — passing the half-million mark to hit 518,711 people. (Last year, Moncton and Halifax were first and second place, respectively.) St. John’s was the next highest finisher, at 21st. Canada has 41 CMAs.

As with all Canadian cities, immigration is driving growth. St. John’s led the nation with an astounding 81 percent increase in immigration. But unlike most Canadian CMAs, those in Atlantic Canada (except for Fredericton) saw more permanent residents move in than non-permanent (temporary foreign workers and students). More impressive was that four of the five CMAs in the region — all but St. John’s — are still seeing net interprovincial migration, i.e. more people coming in from out of province than are leaving.

For Atlantic Canada, reversing decades of population decline and talent drain has been a remarkable accomplishment. “A decade or two ago we were really concerned … not just us but all of Atlantic Canada, and now with the growth we are seeing it’s profound,” Moncton Mayor Dawn Arnold told allNewBrunswick. “I don’t think anyone could have seen it at the rate that it’s going.” Just as important, Atlantic Canada’s cities are getting younger — the median age in all five CMAs (St. John’s, Halifax, Fredericton, Moncton and Saint John) is falling. “We’ve had a good story to tell for many years,” Ian Munro, chief economist with the Halifax Partnership, told SaltWire. “Great universities, bringing lots of young people, growing sectors in the economy. It’s a good place to live.”

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Those left behind

Atlantic Canada can also be a more challenging place to live than in years past, in part because of the population boom and economic momentum it’s helped create. A number of reports released last week focus on those pressures.

Food Banks Canada released its 2024 Poverty Report Card, giving three of the four Atlantic provinces a D minus. Only P.E.I. did better, at C minus, though to be fair the folks at Food Banks Canada are tough markers; everyone but Quebec and P.E.I. got a D minus. It cited CMHC numbers showing 40.9 percent of Nova Scotians were spending more than a third of their income on housing in 2024, up from 35.3 percent a year earlier. It was the highest rate in the region (P.E.I. was lowest, at 28.2 percent, and it was actually down from last year.)

“The cost of living is a real problem. People are finding real difficulty finding housing,” said Ian Munro, chief economist with the Halifax Partnership. Statistics Canada reported that average rents in New Brunswick had jumped 10.8 percent in the last year, the second-biggest increase after Alberta.

Food insecurity was up across the region, Food Banks Canada found, with the biggest increase in Nova Scotia. (A separate survey last week, the 2024 Vital Signs report from the Harris Centre at Memorial University, said food bank visits in Newfoundland and Labrador are up 44 percent from 2019.) And on the crucial question of well-being — do you feel worse off this year compared to last? — the numbers for every province in Atlantic Canada except New Brunswick were up. And they were highest in Nova Scotia, where 56.7 percent of respondents said they were worse off. (The sample size in P.E.I. was so small on that question as to be unreliable, the agency admitted.)

New Brunswick’s Economic and Social Inclusion Corporation is just one government initiative in the region trying to address well-being. It announced last week that it had gathered 32,000 comments from 4,000 residents about the pressures they face. Food insecurity, access to transportation and availability of affordable housing were the issues most frequently cited as obstacles to true economic and social inclusion. “We share the concerns that New Brunswickers have expressed regarding the impact of the rising cost of living and the difficulty in making ends meet,” said Social Development Minister Jill Green.

Something in the way she moos

The idea of surveillance technology that combines facial recognition software with Artificial Intelligence to monitor your emotional state might seem a bit disturbing. But it might be a good thing — for cows anyway.

Suresh Neethirajan, Dalhousie University’s research chair in digital livestock farming, is leading a program called Mooanalytica that uses something called convolutional neural networks (CNNs) and machine learning to “unlock a wealth of data about [a cow’s] health, behaviour, and productivity.” It seems cows, and possibly pigs, offer clues to their well-being in their facial expressions, everything from their eyelids and ears to the tilt of their noses (snouts?). They are currently training the software on thousands of images of Holstein, Jersey and other breeds of dairy cow to develop an app farmers can use to assess herd health. It could mean early disease detection, streamlined breeding, optimized feeding for greater milk production and an all-round more productive farm.

Moonalytica is also collecting audio from thousands of dairy cows in Atlantic Canada, and using AI and natural language processing (NLP) to see if there’s something in the way they moo that reveals how they are feeling. “Our findings indicate a strong correlation between the vocal pitches and various cattle behaviours, providing vital clues about the animals’ emotional states. This research could soon enable farmers to proactively identify and address welfare issues through vocal monitoring,” says the program’s website.

Down and out

A long and rancorous court battle over an idled pulp mill in Pictou County ended last week with a settlement agreement that could see a new mill built in western Nova Scotia.

Northern Pulp’s Abercrombie Point pulp mill was shut down in 2020, throwing 350 people out of work and dealing a blow to the province’s forestry sector. It had been using a provincially owned effluent treatment facility on the Boat Harbour tidal estuary for decades, but when a pipe ruptured in 2014 and spilled millions of litres of untreated effluent into a wetland, the nearby Pictou Landing First Nation blockaded the site. The province eventually shut down the treatment facility which led Northern Pulp to close the plant. The company proposed replacement facilities but was met with protests by fishermen, First Nations and environmentalists. Northern Pulp’s parent company, Paper Excellence, filed for creditor protection and sued the province for $450 million.

The deal struck last week ends the litigation, assures the mill will never reopen and guarantees that underfunded pension liabilities will be made whole. It also commits the company and the province to study the feasibility of building a new $1.4-billion pulp mill near Liverpool, in the southwest of the province. The company is promising a “good faith effort” to find third-party financing to build the mill, and the province is promising support through its capital investment tax credit, possible payroll rebates and its Innovation Rebate Program — while assuring all critics it would still go through the required environmental assessment and Indigenous consultations. If a new mill doesn’t prove feasible, Paper Excellence will sell off its woodlands to finance the pension contributions and repay a portion of the loans it owes the province.

Andrea Paul, the former chief of Pictou Landing First Nation and now a regional chief in the Assembly of First Nations, said she was “really pleased” that the Abercrombie Point mill is closed for good. “This was kind of something that was overshadowing not just my community, but the overall area of Pictou County in terms of what’s going to be the future of the company and how is this going to affect what is going on in the region.” Ben Anderson, a local fisherman, also expressed “a sense of relief,” saying marine life has rebounded in the waters since the plant shut down.

Others were not so pleased. “I don’t think it’s a day of celebration,” said Andy Thompson, a municipal councillor in Pictou County whose father worked at the mill. “We talk about affordability in Nova Scotia and in Canada, and the best way to fight affordability is to have a good-paying job. And right now, our community is losing a lot of them.”

A new mill would certainly be a shot in the arm for a forestry sector that has seen not just Northern Pulp shut down in the last 20 years but also the Bowater Mersey plant in Liverpool and one of two paper machines in Port Hawkesbury, along with a handful of sawmills. “This is about hope,” said Stephen Moore, executive director of Forest Nova Scotia. “Hope for hundreds of families who could rely on jobs provided by the mill, hope for families in rural Nova Scotia where there aren’t a lot of employment opportunities and these are jobs that pay well above the provincial average.”

Storm clouds gather

A region that’s been hammered by extreme weather over the past few years may not be thrilled to hear forecasts that an unprecedented hurricane season is on its way. The U.S. government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted last week there could be between 17 to 25 “named” tropical cyclones in the Atlantic Ocean this year, its highest-ever May forecast. It expects eight to 13 of them will become hurricanes, with four to seven in Category 3 or higher — with winds of at least 179 km/h.

The average Atlantic hurricane season has 14 named storms. (The 21 names on this year’s list range from Alberto to William, and include such old-timey favourites as Beryl, Joyce and Milton.) Overall, the NOAA sees an 85 percent chance of an above-normal season and just a 10 percent chance of a near-normal season. Warmer water temperatures in the Atlantic combined with an expected shift in the Pacific Ocean from El Niño to La Niña weather patterns are to blame for the dire forecast. An El Niño tends to suppress storm formation globally while a La Niña, which is below normal sea surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific, decreases the amount of wind shear that can weaken storms in the Atlantic.

Bob Robichaud, a meteorologist with the Canadian Hurricane Centre, points out that about 35 percent of the storms that form in the Atlantic enter its response zone, an average that “can vary wildly.” And predictions are predictions after all. Last year’s May forecast called for a near-normal season but the season saw 20 named storms, the fourth most since 1950. Atlantic Canada missed the worst of it, and saw “nowhere near the damage that we saw with Fiona back in 2022.” By the time Fiona hit, it wasn’t a hurricane, but a “post-tropical storm.” Still, it caused at least $800 million in insured damages.

On the horizon


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This newsletter is produced by journalists at PPF Media. It maintains complete editorial independence.