Manitoulin population holds firm in 2011 census

by Michael Erskine

OTTAWA—The first batch of details from the 2011 national census have been examined by the seers at Statistics Canada and the prognosis for the North is not encouraging, but despite the renewed decline in population across Northeastern Ontario, most of Manitoulin’s communities managed to post either an increase or a less than average decline in population since the 2006 census.

The results of the population survey will have far-reaching results. By law, an impartial commission must be formed each decade to evaluate and adjust federal electoral districts (ridings) following the national survey. The 2001 survey resulted in the 2003 creation of Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing, the third largest riding in Canada and the one containing Manitoulin Island. The riding encompasses a geographic boundary fully one-sixth the size of France. In the aftermath of the last redistribution, Northern Ontario as a whole lost one riding at the federal level. It is highly likely to lose at least one more this round.

The provincial riding boundaries of Algoma-Manitoulin did not change following a legislative bill introduced by then Algoma-Manitoulin MPP Mike Brown to separate the riding boundaries of the two levels of government, and to hold the number of Northern Ontario electoral districts at the provincial level the same.

The issue is of particular importance, because many services and funding grants from both levels of government use population statistics to distribute their government largesse, so a drop in population contains a double whammy, making both service delivery more difficult and expensive to implement, while too often reducing those resources available to deliver the services.

For the North’s current MPs there is a further consideration, due to the break down of seats and their geographical distributions, members of the same party are likely to find themselves competing for the same parliamentary seat following the next redrawing of riding boundaries.

The riding of Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing (AMK) is particularly vulnerable, situated centrally as it is between a number of other ridings containing slightly larger populations. Even though most of the surrounding ridings contain larger populations than AMK’s approximately 78,000, they each also, in turn, fall far below the 115,000 average size of Ontario ridings (or the 113,000 average population nationally). With Ontario receiving some 15 new seats in the next distribution, the pressure to bring the North’s electoral districts closer into parity will be intense.

Northern NDP MPs including AMK’s Carol Hughes, Glenn Thibeault (Sudbury), Claude Gravelle (Nickel Belt), Charlie Angus (Timmins-James Bay), John Rafferty (Thunder Bay-Rainy River) and Bruce Hyer (Thunder Bay-Superior North) joined forces in press conferences in Sudbury, Sault Ste. Marie and Thunder Bay yesterday to highlight Mr. Gravelle’s private member’s bill requiring that Northern Ontario retain its current number of seats.

“The last time they wanted to reduce the representation here in the North by two seats,” said Ms. Hughes. “It took a lot of lobbying to not have that happen, but in the end we managed to keep the loss down to one seat.”

Ms. Hughes and her compatriots are seeking a common cause with the North’s Conservative MPs, noting that the issue should be of non-partisan interest to representatives of the North, but so far they have not had a response from Jay Aspin (Nipissing-Timiskgaming), Bryan Hayes (Sault Ste. Marie), Geg Rickford (Kenora), or the minister responsible for FedNor and Parry Sound MP, Tony Clement.

There are currently no Liberal MPs in the North.

Ms. Hughes said that the media response to the NDP tour has been gratifying. “We have had a great response,” she said.

The NDP MPs are also looking to make common cause with the mayors, reeves and chiefs across the North to put forward a concerted effort to maintain the North’s representation.

“We need to raise the awareness of this issue and we are asking the people of the North to all get behind our campaign,” she said.

Ms. Hughes noted that the immense size of all of the Northern ridings made the issue one of basic fairness and access to services. Although she attempts to provide access to her services through her two offices in the riding and a traveling constituency clinic, the geographical obstacles are immense. “The population may be declining, but the kilometres are not.”

Although most Island communities experienced either a population increase or a statistical flatline, the most notable exception was Gore Bay, which experienced a whopping eight percent drop in population over the five years since 2006. Gore Bay was followed by Billings and Burpee and Mills with a drop of six-plus percentage points. Running close to stet was the Northeast Town, whose decline equated to one person per year over the past five years.

It should be noted that the reporting of the populations of some communities by Statistics Canada can be distorted by the effects of privacy measures implemented through the survey reporting method wherein very small reporting regions are rounded to the nearest five. Smaller communities are also more susceptible to other rounding errors and, perhaps, local pranks or protests. Tehkummah’s population’s ethnic breakdown in the 2006 census included 50 persons who reported Chinese descent. As the census had indicated that one in eight residents were members of a ‘visible’ minority that remained determinedly invisible, the credibility of the census report for smaller communities was called into question. The mayor of the municipality containing Killarney had challenged the precipitous drop in population reported in the 2006 census for that community, noting that if that many people had left town or died, people would have definitely taken notice.

Still, the anecdotal evidence on the ground in Manitoulin communities is promising. “Central Manitoulin does seem to be booming,” noted Central Manitoulin economic development officer Amanda Gunner, noting that the community has benefited from a number of new businesses opening up shop.

Although the impact of population numbers have less impact on funding opportunities for municipalities when it comes to agencies like FedNor or the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund, it can impact others, like the Trillium Foundation. “It is hard to say what the impact might be,” said Ms. Gunner. “FedNor and NOHFC are more based on developing economic development opportunities. But when it comes to the tax base, having more people moving into your community, building homes and supporting businesses in the community population trends certainly do have an impact.”

One encouraging sign in the census is the increased number of reported households, reflecting a move to smaller family sizes.

In the 2011 census report on population, the only First Nation to post a decline was Sheguiandah (-3.8). Following a trend that is anticipated to continue across the North for the next 25 years, the rest of Manitoulin First Nations posted significant rises in population, with M’Chigeeng First Nation leading the pack at 28.5 percent. Wikwemikong rose by the largest number of residents with 205 (8.6 percent) more people calling the reserve home.

Statistics from First Nations are beginning to solidify following several years of quiet protests in those communities, as some community leaders feared the information might be used to reduce allocations to their communities. The number of band members resident on a reserve is usually far lower than the actual band membership.

The Ontario Grow North Plan projects that within the next quarter century, one in four members of the Northern Ontario labour force will be Native. That demographic trend has helped to bring the disparity of education provided to First Nations into sharper focus for Northern Ontario policy makers.

Ms. Gunner, who is originally from Moosonee, saw the impact of those issues on the ground in the far North with the ability of remote communities being hampered in their ability to take advantage of opportunities presented by diamond finds by DeBeers and now the discoveries in the Ring of Fire.

Overall, the statistics for Manitoulin indicate slower growth than that experienced between 2001 and 2006. During that period, the region grew by over three percent, while the newer figures suggest a more modest number slightly over one percent.

Over the next few months, Statistics Canada will be releasing more in-depth labour and social demographics for Canada and the North. Results from those surveys will likely show that the graying of the North has continued due to the out migration of youth seeking employment and education opportunities.