Northwestern Ontario must work to attract new residents from other places if current economic levels are going to be maintained.
That was the message at Common Voice Northwest's conference on Sept. 23 in Thunder Bay, which drew people from across the region to the Victoria Inn to discuss the challenges posed by changing regional demographics.
"When you're looking at the numbers it can appear overwhelming and somewhat bleak," said Madge Richardson, executive director of the North of Superior Workforce Planning Board.
"At the same time, knowing it now ... that's a huge opportunity," she said.
Today, the population of northwestern Ontario is aging and shrinking. For example, in 2013, people between the ages of 50 and 54 were the region's largest age group, making up just over eight per cent of the population.
The second-largest group was those aged 60-64, at just under eight per cent.
These trends, however, have been observed for some time, said Charles Cirtwill, president of Northern Policy Institute, who also spoke about demographic trends.
In fact, the northwest's aging population has produced some positive results: namely, good jobs are opening up for younger workers.
"It's an opportunity to attract people from Toronto and say, 'If you haven't had a success in putting down roots there, now's your chance,"' Cirtwill said.
But there's the challenge: attracting enough new residents.
In her presentation, Richardson said that the Thunder Bay district alone would need to bring in 1,500 new residents--over and above those who leave--each year for the next 25 years if the economy is to continue to function at its current level.
The Kenora district, mean while, would need to attract 600 people per year. In the Rainy River district, the magic number is 200.
And while these numbers are high, Richardson said they are ideal. The economy can be sustainable, albeit not as strong as today, with fewer new residents.
"Anything you get up to that point is going to be acceptable," she said. "It's going to be better than doing nothing."
Luckily, Cirtwill said, the northwest has an edge that goes beyond the jobs themselves.
"Thunder Bay's got a lot of interesting things that fit the profile of what millennials are looking for," he said, citing things like Internet access and entertainment--live music and a good mix of restaurants --as millennial draws.
And while cities like Toronto have those things, too, they're lacking a major attractor: the great outdoors....