The Newfoundland and Labrador Expatriate Survey (Part 1)

As Newfoundland and Labrador struggles with demographic decline, its provincial government searches for answers from those who left the province behind.

Stories of expatriate Newfoundlanders and Labradorians returning home makes news in this province. The promise of come-home stories tugs at the heartstrings of homesick Newfoundlanders everywhere—present company included. But for many expats, the realities of returning home are limited to good-time visits rather than longer-term stays.

The pitfalls of repatriating often outweigh the promises.

These pitfalls and promises are spelled out in a newly released report from the Newfoundland and Labrador provincial government. Commissioned by the Department of Advanced Education, Skills and Labour, the report (dated December 2018) was released in late May 2019, following an access to information request. (Early versions of the report are also available here and here.) The findings are a summary from a spring 2018 survey of over 3,400 NL expats, as well as 60 key informant interviews carried out at the same time.

“We wanted some clear, open-minded responses from individuals that left our province that we could use to help shape policy and marketing initiatives that we could utilize to—hopefully—intrigue people enough to come back, and create opportunity for them to do so,” Bernard Davis, Minister of Advanced Education, Skills and Labour, told The Independent.

“People have been leaving here since they built the skyscrapers in New York,” he continued. “We wanted to find out what we could possibly do as a government to bring individuals back to this beautiful province.”

Trends in Population Growth and Unemployment

Comparing population growth for Canada and NL over the last half-century (Figure 1) shows steady growth in Canada versus the flat-lining of the NL population—which averages a population of about 540,000 over this period).

On closer inspection, the provincial population resembles a swelling—then breaking—wave (Figure 2). People started leaving Newfoundland and Labrador, particularly the outports, almost as soon as they arrived. In the years following the cod moratorium, between 1992 and 2007, the province experienced record demographic decline, with a 10% population drop from 580,109 to 509,055. This was offset by a period of modest growth from 2008 to 2016 during the upswing in the provincial economy. But even by 2014, population growth had started to slow; by 2017, it was shrinking once again.

What’s more is the province is home to a rapidly aging population. In 2017, the average age here was 44-years-old; by 2018, it was 46- to 47-years-old. This aging demographic is a result of several confounding factors, for example: more young people are leaving the province than coming here. Birth rates are also declining—from as many as 16,000 births per year in the 1950s-60s to a historic low of 4,000 births per year in the 2000s.

“In Newfoundland and Labrador, we’re on the wrong side of demographics,” Minister Davis explained. “[We have] an aging population that we want to address.”

It’s one of the reasons the minister found the results of the survey and interviews “so impressive:” it targeted 19-44 year-olds, hearing from a record number of younger people. The target number for the survey was 300, and the responses came in at more than ten times that number.

“That’s the kind of people we want to come back because they have working years left,” says Davis. “We have a lot of opportunities that are going to come up as Baby Boomers age out of the marketplace, and we’re going to have to fill those positions.”

According to data from the Department of Advanced Skills, Labour and Education in the province, job opportunities are on the rise, but there are not enough people to fill the positions opening up.

“For every 150 people that retire, we can only replace them with 100 people,” Davis explains. The provincial government’s economic report, The Economy 2019, also cites thousands of upcoming job opportunities across multiple sectors.

But unemployment trends paint a different picture. The province has largely mirrored national patterns of up- and down-turns in unemployment rates, with one notable exception. NL’s unemployment rate is consistently nearly double the Canadian average.

Back in 1992, at the time of the cod moratorium, the unemployment rate in NL hit a high of 20% (while Canada’s was also at a recessionary high of 11%). While the unemployment rate has steadily declined since that time for both the country and the province, Canada’s current unemployment rate (5.8% in 2018) is still less than half that of NL (13.8% in 2018).

(The minimum wage in this province is also among the lowest in the country at $11.40/hour, which is about a dollar less than the average minimum wage across the country. For what it’s worth, the two places most of the survey respondents are living report the highest minimum wage in the country: Alberta at $15.00/hour and Ontario at $14.00/hour.)

Newfoundland and Labrador Expats on their Reasons to Leave and Return

These themes—employment and quality of life—dominated the survey responses. Overall, these are the major reasons expats leave the province, and the means whereby they could be enticed to return.

About the survey respondents

The survey sought adults aged 19- to 44-years-old, excluding full-time post-secondary students, who once lived in Newfoundland and Labrador but currently reside elsewhere. Nearly 60% of respondents reported living in St. John’s prior to leaving. 90% were living in other parts of Canada: mostly Alberta (36%) or Ontario (31%) followed by Nova Scotia (14%) and British Columbia (8%).

At the time of the survey, 60% of respondents reported earning annual incomes of over $100,000; under half reported having children; and there was an even split between female (51%) and male (46%) respondents.


Most survey respondents cited better employment opportunities (77%) and taking a job (46%) as reasons they left NL. Job security also ranked high, with 36% citing it as a factor in their decision to leave. Similarly, nearly half cited better employment opportunities (47%) as a reason that would influence their decision to return. Taking a job (31%) and job security (26%) also factored as reasons respondents would return.

While the majority (62%) of the 60 interviewees reported they were working prior to leaving the province, a greater share reported working (95%) in their new place of residence. Most respondents (survey and interviews) reported working in the private sector, both before they left and presently. The most common industries survey respondents reported working in include: professional, scientific or administrative services (private sector); oil and gas; healthcare and social assistance; construction/trades; education; and other public services.

Quality of Life

Roughly half of respondents cited quality of life factors as reasons to leave. In particular, they sought better publicly funded services (such as healthcare, education and public transportation) (46%); greater access to leisure and cultural activities (45%); and a more affordable cost of living (42%).

About half of respondents (46%) also reported that an affordable cost of living would entice them to return, alongside better government services (28%), better health and well-being (such as better work-life balance) (28%), more access to leisure/cultural activities (21%) and child care (19%).

One-fifth of survey respondents cited being near a spouse or partner as a reason to leave as well as return. One-third indicated being closer to their parents as another reason to return. Although the report groups spousal and parent factors as “relationship factors,” arguably, they are a major influence on quality of life.

A Curious Omission

During a post-election Question Period in the House of Assembly last month, the opposition Progressive Conservatives asked about content from an early draft that had been cut from the final report.

In May 2018, the draft (pgs. 62-181 herein) included the following comments: “The majority of the respondents and informants cited… employment-related reasons for leaving the province: better employment opportunities/options and/or to take a job. Other reasons further explored by the informants included apparent inequitable hiring practices in NL (e.g., buddy systems) and/or lack of job security/inability to get full-time work. (…) Some of the informants stressed the issue of unfair/inequitable hiring processes, citing these are based on, for example, ‘who you know’, nepotism, and political interference.”

In the final report, the comments and quotes about ‘nepotism’ and inequitable hiring practices do not appear.

“We were excited to get the report back because it provides us with evidence-based information, which is what we really need to make decisions,” Davis told The Independent when asked about the changes. “You can’t make decisions as a government based on anecdotal information.”

“We all think we know exactly why things are happening in the economy, or what’s happening in our own cities and towns across the province,” he continued. “But facts are really, really important, and this government has made a concerted effort to ensure that we use evidence-based reports.”

“This is providing us with evidence that supports some of those things, but also gives us an opportunity to look at other options we can look at whether it be affordability or whether it be the opportunities we’re trying to create.”

Photo by Alan Schmierer.

Stay tuned for Part 2, where The Independent explores some of the solutions offered up by expats to make Newfoundland and Labrador more enticing.

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