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

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:

Higher learning, low blow

The huge influx of international students into Atlantic Canada in recent years has been a big driver of population growth and post-secondary expansion in the region. So it’s not surprising that the federal government’s move to limit the number of international student visas over the next two years has come under fire.

Immigration Minister Marc Miller said last week the government would cap the number at 360,000 for 2024, a drop of 35 percent from 2023, with the number for 2025 to be determined later. Visas will be allocated to each province and territory based on population, and the provinces will decide which institutions will get them. The move is designed to ease pressures on housing and health-care services created by the rising number of international students.

But it will no doubt make things more difficult for post-secondary institutions, many of whom have come to rely on the higher fees those students pay. (Their tuition fees are at least double, and sometimes five and six times higher than what Canadian students pay.) International students make up 30 percent of the overall student body in Atlantic universities, and at some institutions it’s considerably higher. UPEI’s enrollment is 35 percent international students, Université de Moncton’s is 37 percent, and at Cape Breton University it’s a whopping 76 percent, though CBU has a plan in place to bring that down to 60 percent.

Peter Halpin, executive director of the Association of Atlantic Universities, called the cap a “blunt instrument” and acknowledged how much international students contributed to the “financial sustainability” of the region’s institutions. He also pointed out that 56 percent of those students stay and work in the region after graduation. “International students are very important to our institutions, but also very important to the region as well…[They] are a great pool of future, highly qualified immigrants to the region.”

Students aren’t happy either. They’re worried, and no doubt their parents are too, that a reduced revenue stream from international students will mean tuition hikes for everyone. They argue it’s unfortunate for those students looking for opportunity in Canada — “it is going to shatter a lot of dreams for students in their high schools back home,” said Sahilpreet Singh Chatha, president of the Cape Breton University Students’ Union.

And they say it’s fundamentally unfair: “It’s very upsetting for students to see this kind of response from the federal government and feel as though they are being the scapegoats for the situation with Canada’s housing crisis that has been (building) for decades before they arrived here,” said Georgia Saleski, executive director of Students Nova Scotia.

A good catch

The coalition of seven First Nations who bought a 50-percent stake in seafood giant Clearwater Seafoods in 2021 will soon see more money flowing from the deal.

The transaction was a landmark in Indigenous business development. “It has completely transformed our community,” said Chief Terry Paul of the Membertou First Nation in Cape Breton and one of the architects of the deal. “It is a remarkable example of economic reconciliation.” It was also a somewhat complicated transaction. The Mi’kmaq coalition partnered with Vancouver-based Premium Brands in the $1-billion purchase: it borrowed $250 million from the First Nations Finance Authority (FNFA), a non-profit set up by the federal government, to buy Clearwater’s Canadian shellfish licences; and it borrowed some $250 million from Premium Brands for its equity stake in the company.

Last week, the coalition announced it had secured a $100-million loan from the FNFA to pay down its debt to Premium Brands — at an interest rate less than half what it had been paying. The result will be more money from the operations flowing through to the First Nations. Chief Paul said it would mean about $3 million a year for the Membertou alone.

The robot will see you

There’s been no shortage of worry and finger pointing about health care staff shortages in Atlantic Canada. The P.E.I. government has been in a running squabble with the now-departed CEO of PEI Health, which runs the province’s hospitals, over both staffing levels and concerns that a new UPEI medical school will pull doctors away from overburdened hospitals. In Newfoundland and Labrador last week, the opposition NDP released access to information documents putting the number of health-care vacancies across the province over the last two years at 1,905. Health Minister Tom Osborne countered that, although the province had seen more departures than new hires, a number of retention and recruitment initiatives are proving effective. Admittedly, progress is slow: the number of nursing vacancies was still 715 in October 2023, down from 760 in October 2022.

Perhaps a little futuristic technology will help. Newfoundland and Labrador Health Services has put out a request for proposals for the supply of “an eventual fleet of autonomous robots.” It’s not using robots currently, but spokesperson Mikaela Etchegary said the move is an “early investigative step to help gain more insight into the potential value robot technology can provide in enhancing the delivery of services.” Robots could, for instance, deliver specific products or equipment directly to staff. Or they could help in other ways, Etchegary said, noting that Humber River Health in Ontario enlisted Pepper, a humanoid robot, in 2018 to decrease patient anxiety.

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Big backlash to tiny homes

The homelessness crisis in Nova Scotia seems to resist any kind of solution. More than 200 people showed up at a community meeting in Sydney last week to complain about a proposed shelter community in the Whitney Pier neighbourhood. The province plans to put 30 tiny dwellings, known as Pallet shelters, on a vacant government-owned plot of land in the area, but residents say they are worried about security, their children’s safety and their real estate values. One woman says a deal to sell her house recently fell through when the buyer found out about the plan.

Residents say they don’t object to a Pallet shelter community, but want it moved to a location where social services are more readily available. Erika Shea, president of one of the non-profit agencies involved, said she understood that “so much about this is scary and uncomfortable because, as a community, we’ve not seen this level of homelessness and mental health and addictions crises before.” The need for speed is so critical, she said, that no process for community consultation could be developed before the plan was put in place.

Moving quickly has proven just as problematic in Halifax. With 1,100 homeless people in the city facing cold winter conditions, and a tent city now well-established in the Grande Parade public square across from city hall, the city rushed a 50-bed shelter into service at the Halifax Forum with the help of $3-million from the province. It plans to add more beds in coming weeks.

Not everyone is keen on the idea, however. The 25 to 30 people living in the Grande Parade encampment were all offered a spot at the new shelter. Only one accepted. The shelter’s open auditorium space, with cots separated by yellow curtains, doesn’t offer the privacy, security or the sense of community of a tent city, activists said, not to mention that it’s a 20-to-30-minute bus ride from Grande Prairie. Ric Young, one denizen of the encampment, said it was no solution: “We are not convicts, but we’re being treated like convicts.”

Wind farm vs. Moose

Efforts to build more renewable energy took a step forward last week when the Nova Scotia Supreme Court upheld the environmental assessment of the Wentworth Valley wind farm. Developers plan to install 17 turbines in Colchester and Cumberland counties, and start generating power next year.

A local group called Protect Wentworth Valley sought a judicial review of the project’s environmental assessment, arguing that the area is “core habitat” for the endangered mainland moose, as stipulated in the province’s own Mainland Moose Recovery Plan. It also said Environment Minister Tim Halman had asked the developers for more information on the project but then rushed through his approval of the assessment before receiving any. The Court ruled that the minister had considered all relevant information, gathered plenty of public input and done extensive consultation with Nova Scotia’s Mi’kmaq community. The Sipekne’katik First Nation is a partner in the project.

As to the moose, Justice Timothy Gabriel pointed out that the wind farm operators would certainly have to abide by any applicable regulations in the Endangered Species Act, and noted the environmental assessment approval includes provisions on protecting animal habitat and demands the operators monitor mainland moose for at least two years.

Needle Exchange

Like most recent years, 2023 was one of the warmest on record, with an average global temperature 1.45 degrees above that of the pre-industrial era. The same was true in the Maritimes, where 2023 was the fourth consecutive year that temperatures measured in cities across the region ranked in the top five to 10 warmest of all time — or at least since records started being kept in the late 1800s.

It was a year of wildfires and floods and growing concern over what mitigating measures might be needed to protect the region from climate change. One thing that could be done in P.E.I., but isn’t, is replanting softwood forests with hardwood.

Last week, the chair of a commission examining the province’s forestry practices told a legislative committee that P.E.I. has continued planting softwood despite a policy that explicitly calls for a shift to hardwood. Between 2018 and 2022, 82 percent of spending under P.E.I.’s forest enhancement program went to softwood planting, and only four percent to hardwood. Softwood seedlings are cheaper and easier to produce, said Jean-Paul Arsenault, “but that’s not how you’re going to build a more resilient forest.” Hardwood is much better suited to the warmer climate and extreme weather conditions to come, he said, pointing out how post-tropical storms Dorion and Fiona ripped up so many coniferous trees on the island.

On the horizon


Wednesday, Jan. 31, GDP (November)

Feb. 6, Building permits (December)

Feb. 20, CPI (January)

March 27, Tourism indicators (fourth quarter 2023)


Atlantic First Nations Health Conference, Feb. 13-15

Society of Canadian Aquatic Sciences Annual Conference, Feb. 21-24

H2O: Home to Overseas Conference, June 3-4

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