If you read the Globe and Mail, you might have learned a little something this morning about Newfoundland and Labrador. For instance, if you thought that Newfoundland was “the province of failed boondoggles, collapsing fisheries and boom-bust forestry,” you were wrong, at least according Barrie McKenna’s column “Newly rich Newfoundland still enjoying perks of its ‘have-not’ past“.

In fact, you now know that Newfoundland’s economy is “red hot” (never mind that forecast growth is down 2.6% from last year) and that “Today’s boom is based on long-term investments in offshore oil, hydroelectric power, nickel and tourism.”

McKenna charges that, given Newfoundland’s indisputable “Have” status, federal funding like equalization payments and a loan guarantee for the Muskrat Falls development is unfair, a reward for inefficient economic policies, and ultimately the result of outdated federal systems.

But his logic hinges on the assumption that Newfoundland and Labrador is, indeed, doing as well as he says, and some of his assertions require a second look.

  • McKenna says that, “The population is growing again after years of outmigration.”

Migration did indeed turn positive in 2009, and according to the Newfoundland and Labrador Dept. of Finance “net in-migration is assumed to continue through to 2015 due to increased levels of employment and construction activity related to the Hydromet facility in Long Harbour, Hebron, and the Lower Churchill.” However, according to a report published by the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS), the population is slated to decrease, and dramatically, over the next 35 years, dropping to 391,600 in 2046.

  • McKenna writes: Other major federal programs, such as employment insurance, are also badly tilted in the province’s favour because of a preponderance of seasonal work and a high structural jobless rate. All Canadian workers pay in to employment insurance, but Newfoundlanders are among those most likely to qualify for full benefits. Nine out of 10 unemployed Newfoundlanders get EI, compared with only four out of 10 in Ontario, where part-time work, self-employment and a surplus of new entrants to the labour force disqualify many.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like McKenna is saying that unemployed Newfoundlanders are more often able to collect unemployment because they have no work, whereas Ontarians are disqualified from unemployment funds because they are able to find…work.

  • Other social services are hit just as badly, writes McKenna: “The consequences of decades of financial neglect are now evident in health care and education. Per capita, there are fewer doctors, nurses, hospitals and universities in Ontario than in most other provinces. Newfoundland, in contrast, ranks near the top.”

This is actually a very interesting point, and one raised by Dale Orr in a 2010 paper titled “Why Do Some Provinces Spend More on Health Care Than Others?“(PDF).

According to Orr, Ontario ranks 9th (Quebec is the lowest) when it comes to health care spending, while Newfoundland and Labrador does indeed get the top spot (though, if you standardize for demographics, Alberta actually spends the most per capita). But the answer likely has more to do with the social geography of the provinces. Newfoundland needs more doctors and nurses per capita, precisely because they serve small communities spread around an enormous landmass.

It could be that the meat of McKenna’s argument, that citizens in Ontario end up paying for social services in provinces that aren’t their own based on federal fiscal policy rooted in the 1950’s, is completely legitimate.

But as long as discussions like these are rooted in quibbles about have (not) status, I can’t see the conversation really progressing any farther. Perhaps, to avoid further windbaggery, we should confine ourselves to Haiku.  I’ll offer the first:

Newfoundland just is
being more than having
no fish, lots of oil