Laurie Brinklow, Co-ordinator, Institute of Island Studies, University of Prince Edward Island, Charlottetown, PEI, Canada
I live on Prince Edward Island, which is a small island province on Canada’s east coast. With a population of just over 153,000, we are often considered to be a rural province because of our rural agricultural landscape; indeed, most of the population lives outside our two small cities, Charlottetown and Summerside. The Island has a long history of in-migration, starting with the Mi’kmaq 10,000 years ago. European settlers began arriving in the 1700s – predominantly Scots, Irish, and English – followed in the late 1800s/early 1900s by the Lebanese, Chinese, and Dutch. But, over the years, like most developed countries around the world, birth rates declined and the population aged as our youth continued the tradition of leaving the Island to further their education or find better job opportunities – or just get away from home. This includes my own two daughters who now live and work in England and Alberta.
Recognizing that prosperity depends on people on a small island with few natural resources beyond agriculture, fisheries and tourism, in 2000 the provincial government hired us at the Institute of Island Studies (IIS) to undertake a population strategy. The 55 recommendations took a holistic approach encompassing a broad spectrum, from the role of communities to economic development; from children, youth, and seniors to education, health, transportation, and housing; from land use and development planning to immigration – both interprovincial and international, including a category called “Islanders away.” The result was a steady increase in population, led mostly by international immigration from China, India, Vietnam, Philippines, Nigeria, and Syria. Since 2007, PEI has consistently led the four Atlantic provinces in population growth and in 2017 published Recruit, Retain, Repatriate: A Population Action Plan for Prince Edward Island to ensure the trend continued.
In 2018, in a bid to create evidence-based policy-making around that last word – Repatriate – the PEI Department of Workforce and Advanced Learning contracted us again to undertake a research project to determine the opportunities for and barriers to Islanders returning home. In tandem with staff we designed a 26-question survey using Survey Monkey that would go to alumni from our three post-secondary institutions (UPEI, Holland College, and College de l’Ȋle); a link was also posted to a “WorkPEI” Facebook page and was sent through the IIS’s communications channels. An Islander was defined as “someone who has lived or visited the Island but currently does not live on PEI.” By March 15, 2018, we received 683 responses. Questions included closed and open-ended questions.
You can find the full report, entitled Recruiting Talent to PEI, here, but what we found in general was that people wanted to come back to PEI for many reasons – family and quality of life being at the top – but were mostly prevented by lack of meaningful, well-paid employment. There were other concerns, of course, such as housing, childcare, health, open-mindedness, and having to leave family behind in their new homes. As one person said, “The things that make PEI so appealing are also obstacles to moving back. I love that PEI is small and rural, but that also means fewer job opportunities in my field.” But the Island’s lure is strong, as evidenced in the emotional responses we received. Here’s my favourite: “For me, there is an unspoken truth and ease about who I really am and how I fit in when I’m on the island. As [poet] Milton Acorn said when he moved back to the island for good in 1981, ‘I know where I am here.’”
The government released the report as part of a campaign called “Maybe you should come home.” It’s probably too soon to tell if it’s working, but I’m hoping to add my two daughters – and their husbands and children – to the population statistics that include Islanders returning home.