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

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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:

Immigration ups and downs

Immigration takes a lot of blame these days for the pressures it puts on housing and health care, but it’s responsible for one of the more promising trends in Atlantic Canada — the region is getting younger faster than the country as a whole.

Statistics Canada released new population numbers last week for the year ending July 1, 2023 and while the headlines focused on the fact millennials now outnumber baby boomers, perhaps more significant is that the average age of the Canadian population fell for the first time since 1958. Thanks to the surge in immigration — newcomers tend to be younger — the average age dropped from 41.7 to 41.6. In Atlantic Canada, PEI and New Brunswick saw the same decline in average age while Nova Scotia’s fell by 0.2 years, to 43.8. (Newfoundland and Labrador’s ticked up by 0.1 years, to 45.7.) When it comes to the median age, Nova Scotia, PEI and New Brunswick all saw bigger declines than any other province.

The region is still the country’s oldest, but the gap is shrinking. And the working age population, those aged 16-64, rose in all four Atlantic provinces — PEI’s grew 4.6 percent, compared to 3.2 percent for Canada as a whole.

Still, the strains immigration puts on public services are real enough, and last week PEI announced it was pumping the brakes. It will cut the number of permanent residents it accepts under two federal programs — the Provincial Nominee Program and the Atlantic Immigration Program — by 25 percent this year. The actual number will drop to 1,510, from 2,120 last year, but that will mean about 1,000 fewer immigrants overall, since most permanent residents bring at least one family member with them.

“We have challenges in housing. We have challenges in the delivery of health care. And until we can find a way to expand those services and expand those programs, we need to do the best we can to manage the people that come into our province,” said Premier Dennis King. He promised to better target provincial nominations to meet those needs, after the CBC reported last week that 40 percent of those who came in 2023 under the two nominee programs worked in food service and accommodations. Only nine percent were in health care, with the bulk of those in low-skilled jobs, and just 1.5 percent were in construction.

Are you listening to WONK?! Don’t miss Edward Greenspon’s conversation with Peter Nicholson, on mentoring Elon Musk and the future of wind power in Atlantic Canada

Nursing bad news

The fallout continues from revelations last week that two Atlantic provinces have spent millions on private health-care staff, with political leaders offering both rationalizations and resolve to do better.

The Globe and Mail reported that Newfoundland and Labrador spent some $35.6 million on so-called “travel nurses” from private agencies between April and August 2023, and that New Brunswick has a $93-million deal in place that will run through 2026. The cost of the nurses is north of $300 per hour, or about six times what a public sector nurse in the region earns.

New Brunswick Deputy Health Minister Eric Beaulieu told the legislature’s public accounts committee mid-week that staffing shortages meant services would have been denied and facilities closed had the stopgap measure not been taken. “It was necessary at the time,” he said. Dr. France Desrosiers, CEO of Vitalité, one of the regional health authorities that used the nurses, said departures and early retirements during the pandemic left care levels at a “critical threshold” by mid-2022: “This temporary but necessary measure allowed us to save lives, relieve our staff by reducing team exhaustion and turnover.”

Likewise, in Newfoundland and Labrador, Health Minister Tom Osborne called the level of spending on agency nursing “unsustainable” but said strains on the system made it a “necessary evil.” Premier Andrew Furey said the government would investigate suspected irregularities — like $1.6-million billed for meals — but that the system was in “full crisis” at the time: “Maybe things were rushed in order to provide the continued level of care that was needed during a very anxious and stressed time.”

Both provinces took great pains to tout recruitment efforts they say will address the shortages. Osborne said Newfoundland and Labrador has recruited 400 nurses and 80 doctors in the past fiscal year, and the number of travel nurses working in the St. John’s area has dropped from 60 to fewer than 20. In New Brunswick, Vitalité said new hires have exceeded departures since June 2022, and Horizon Health Network, the other network cited in Globe reporting, has recruited 278 permanent nurses since April 2023. Premier Blaine Higgs said the use of travel nurses “is not the future for nursing” in New Brunswick. “It’s not a situation we want to keep at all.”

Save the date: PPF Frank McKenna Awards 2024 celebrates leaders making Canada and the Atlantic region richer through their ingenuity and initiative. This year’s event will take place on Oct. 10 at Pier 21 in Halifax. Register now – and stay tuned for announcements about our 2024 honourees. 

Housing acceleration

Efforts to push through housing developments are getting more determined, and more aggressive. With the federal government promising $79 million in funding from its Housing Accelerator Fund, Halifax municipal staff last week proposed radical zoning changes to take advantage of what planning chief Jacqueline Hamilton called a “transformational opportunity.”

Among the changes: all residential areas zoned for single-family homes would henceforth allow buildings of 11 or 12 metres high (about three storeys); buildings of seven to nine storeys would be allowed on all current or planned transit routes in “corridor zones”; buildings of up to 40 storeys would be allowed in the downtown core; and there would be no minimum parking requirements for new development anywhere.

Officials hope the federal money, and the zoning changes, will translate into 15,000 new housing units in the next three years. (Though that’s well short of the 52,000 units a recent study said the Halifax Regional Municipality will need by 2027.)

Some folks are nervous, worried about traffic, neighbourhood character and the like. One resident, Jennifer Szerb, is gathering signatures on a letter of opposition. “[It’s] such a sudden and major change, and I don’t think that many Haligonians realize the impact,” she said. A public hearing on the proposed changes is expected in April.

Meanwhile, the federal government keeps doling out the cash from the Accelerator Fund. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced $1.9-million for the Membertou First Nation last week and another $11-million for the Cape Breton Regional Municipality. Three towns in Pictou County got a total of $5.6 million and Cornwall, PEI, a town of just over 5,000 people, got almost $4.3-million.

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Unacceptable Student Cap

The federal government’s move to cap international student visas is drawing fire again in Atlantic Canada. In January, Ottawa announced it would cut the number of study permits it issues this year by 35 percent, a move critics said would reduce post-secondary revenues and ultimately stifle labour force growth and economic development. Last week, some officials took issue with its mechanics, saying it was a blunt instrument that didn’t reflect regional realities.

The policy not only caps the number of study permits, it limits how many acceptance letters schools can send out. The federal government bases that limit on how likely a student is to attend once being accepted, and is using the national average “conversion rate” of 60 percent.

But many schools in Atlantic Canada don’t manage that conversion rate, or anywhere close. Pierre Zundel, president of Collège communautaire du Nouveau-Brunswick, say his school’s rate is 36 percent, which is about standard for the province. UPEI officials say their province will be disproportionately affected by the limit on acceptance letters. Because it’s the only university on the Island, and most students apply to more than one school, they may be less inclined to apply in the first place. In essence, the concern is that limiting acceptance letters based on a national average will keep schools in Atlantic Canada from reaching even the reduced allocations they’ve been given.

Cutting out the coal

Nova Scotia’s Clean Electricity Solutions Task Force says the province needs to create an independent, not-for-profit operator for the province’s electricity grid — separate from Nova Scotia Power — to help reach its goal of eliminating coal-fired generation by 2030.

In its final report submitted last week, the task force argued that such a body would assure decisions on connecting clean energy projects to the grid could be made purely in the public interest. “It puts an end to any perceived conflict of interest or bias between the system operator and Nova Scotia Power,” said John MacIsaac, a task force member. It would also “spur increased competition for the resources necessary to replace coal,” he added.

The report also recommended the creation of an energy regulator responsible for electricity, natural gas, pipelines, enforcement and retail gas that would be separate from the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board (UARB).

Tory Rushton, minister of natural resources and renewables, promised to “take a measured approach” in considering the recommendations. Nova Scotia Power said a dedicated energy regulator will be “important to advance critical projects and customer solutions” during the transition to net-zero energy: “Achieving the government’s 2030 climate goals is complex and a heavy lift for the province,” said CEO Peter Gregg.

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Come again, by chance?

Newfoundland and Labrador’s Come by Chance refinery is finally back up and running, with the new owners insisting operations will be more sustainable, in more ways than one.

Braya Renewable Fuels announced last week that commercial production of renewable diesel fuel had begun at the refinery. Made from vegetable oils, used cooking oil, animal fats and the like, renewable diesel produces 50 percent less carbon emissions than traditional petroleum-based diesel.

Come by Chance first opened in 1973, after much delay and tens of millions in government subsidies. It lost money from the start, despite skyrocketing oil prices at the time, and first went bankrupt in 1976. It’s had a number of owners since then and was shut down four years ago — some thought for good — before Dallas-based Braya rescued the facility in 2021. It has invested hundreds of millions to convert the refinery, helped along by $86-million from the federal government, and plans to produce about 18,000 barrels of renewable diesel per day.

Braya CEO Todd O’Malley is convinced Come by Chance can succeed where it so often didn’t before. Its deep-water port and its sheer size give it an edge. It is six times bigger than the Tidewater Resources refinery that opened in B.C. last fall — fewer than 10 renewable diesel refineries in the world operate at this scale. And as more jurisdictions introduce low carbon fuel tax credits and mandate tougher fuel standards, demand will grow. Braya is even working with ABO Wind in hopes of using green hydrogen to help run the refinery. “We are now a cornerstone in the progress toward a net zero economy,” O’Malley said.

On the horizon


  • March 7, Building permits (January 2024)

  • March 19, Consumer Price Index (February 2024)

  • March 27, Tourism indicators (fourth quarter 2023)


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