And a child shall lead them….

A commentary from the Times & Transcript:

Written by Ellen Creighton of Fredericton -a member of the New Brunswick Student Alliance and UNB’s Student Union executives, and is a Bachelor of Laws candidate (2006).

It’s difficult to deny that we can hear a sort of sucking sound. The brain drain threatens to whirlpool us off to other parts of Canada, North America, and around the world. For some of us, that’s what we want and what we’ve been looking forward to. Bring on the adventure. But for others, we leave reluctantly, looking over our shoulder and wishing we could stay.

In either case, we used to return. Now, statistics show we leave for good. That’s a big problem because our tax base is reduced, our population ages and our workforce shrinks.New Brunswick faces a triple threat when it comes to the brain drain: North/south, rural/urban, and NB/other province or country. The causes are manifold. Some say the economy is the problem. New graduates are offered contract work, not permanent positions. They are routinely paid significantly less than in other provinces. The work available is not within their chosen field, but rather at places like call centres.

Call centres are on their way out as the work re-centres itself in India. Heavy reliance on primary processing of natural resources makes us subject to the whims of the global economy, as seen with the recent mill closures.Others say staggering amounts of student debt is the problem. New Brunswick has one of the highest levels of “extreme student debt”. The province removed a six-month grace period on interest accumulation. The province placed first in tuition increases last year – a dubious accomplishment when rates averaged one per cent across Canada and we averaged six per cent.

Still, others say the province is not marketing itself properly to its own inhabitants.People have ideas for solutions – diversify intelligently, encourage entrepreneurship, control tuition levels, re-prioritize education over the black hole of health care, etc. But there are many more ideas out there that haven’t been tapped. We can all thump our drums in a sort of patriotic way – “we love New Brunswick” and all of that. The beauty is here, our families are here, our history is here. No doubt.

But the danger is that it becomes false patriotism. Reality must step in and guide us when it comes to paying rent, building a true career and creating a foundation for our families. In most assessments, pastures are greener outside the provincial borders. The current Prosperity Plan’s goals of making New Brunswick a better place to live, a better place to work and a better place to raise a family are still just rhetoric, and not reality.

The good news is that we can fix the brain drain and bring it back from a mass exodus to natural demographic shifts. With the power of creative and forward-thinking individuals, corporations, and associations, we can tackle this problem head-on and fix it together. We don’t have gas, we don’t have oil, but we do have great people.It’s going to take regional cooperation. Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island face the same issue and it doesn’t make sense for Atlantic provinces to compete when what we need is cooperation. Examples include ACOA, Business New Brunswick, municipal governments, local and regional Chambers of Commerce, the Maritime Provinces Higher Education Council, artists, youth groups, provincial governments, think tanks, student groups, educators, academic and interested citizens.

Ground-up consultation and planning will bring the best results. Focusing on the economy, education and branding as issues in isolation will not bring results.Government must realize that it cannot do it alone this time – we all need to play our part. Government, however, can take a leadership role in bringing people together. It is the only institution with the legitimacy to start the work. Devolve consultation and decision-making. Empower people. Encourage creativity. Listen to new ideas. Get people working with the government.

Here’s the catch: we have to start now, or that sucking sound will only get louder. And the state of the province may begin to suck as well.

Note: Wouldn’t it be neat if she actually understood the role of global investment as one of the ways to address her mentioned challenges? Anyway, she has a good grasp of things.