P.E.I urged to press pause on immigration, while health care and housing feeling the pinch

As population growth continues to place a strain on health care and housing on Prince Edward Island, there are renewed calls for the provincial government to ease back on immigration programs to give services a chance to catch up.

For years, Canada’s smallest province has had one of the fastest-growing populations in the country. The latest estimate from Statistics Canada showed P.E.I. growing at an annual rate of four per cent, with 175,853 residents as of Oct. 1, 2023.

In the past month, both the province’s health minister and the outgoing head of the provincial health authority have spoken about the struggle of maintaining services in the face of population growth.

The most recent statistics on rental vacancies showed P.E.I. had the tightest provincial rental market in the country, with an apartment vacancy rate of less than one per cent. 

Housing starts are not keeping up with the minimum 2,000 units per year the province’s housing minister has said are needed just to keep up with population growth.

There’s nothing that can be done to place any limits on people moving to the Island from another part of Canada. But some are wondering why the province has been moving ahead full-steam with immigration programs, to encourage growth in the form of newcomers to Canada.

Ottawa’s allocation of permanent resident nominations to the province has increased 92 per cent, from 1,070 in 2018 to 2,050 in 2023.

“We’re inviting people into our province when there’s no housing for people who are here or people who are coming in,” said interim Green Party Leader Karla Bernard.

“There’s no health care for people who are here or people coming in. …So for now, all of these aggressive programs that we’ve designed, that governments have designed to get people to come here — we need to just kind of slow those down until we can get things caught up.”

Workers needed, minister says

But there seems to be little appetite from the government to scale back on immigration programs, which are providing a fresh supply of workers to Island businesses, boosting the provincial economy, and trending the province toward younger demographics.

“We want to ensure we have workers that will fill the workforce,” P.E.I.’s Minister of Workforce, Advanced Learning and Population Jenn Redmond said back in June, when the topic of curbing immigration was raised in the legislature.

People hold bottles of wine inside a building.
The King government has said more new Canadians are needed on the Island to boost the workforce and keep the population relatively young. In this file photo, newcomers visit Rossignol Winery as part of a bus tour to give them a better sense of P.E.I. entrepreneurship. (Laura Meader/CBC)

“People want to be here. They’re choosing P.E.I. for a reason,” Premier Dennis King said in a year-end interview with CBC News.

“I guess if there’s problems to have, those are the good problems, or the good challenges to have.”

The latest breakdown of population growth from Statistics Canada shows P.E.I. gained 3,116 immigrants in 2022-2023, and saw a net increase in non-permanent residents – those in the province on student or work visas – of 2,098.

Over the same period, the province gained 1,587 residents through net interprovincial migration.

Back in June, Redmond said final touches were being put on a new population strategy. 

The previous strategy was unveiled under former Liberal premier Wade MacLauchlan in 2017, and covered the five-year period until 2022.

P.E.I.’s growth has outstripped all targets and provincial projections, though — and the release of the province’s new population strategy has been delayed.

A woman holds booklets that say 'Becoming a Canadian Citizen.'
Prince Edward Island’s population continued growing in 2022-2023, with 3,116 immigrants among the new Islanders. (CBC)

King said his government is now working on a population framework, from which the strategy will be developed.

He said the framework will let government departments “work together to make sure, as we bring in new Islanders, that we’re integrating them into the systems of health care, of education, of housing, et cetera.”

King said he doesn’t know “if we have a target number of what we want or what we can sustain” in terms of population.

Not enough funding

Economist Armine Yalnizyan, who’s with the Atkinson Foundation, said P.E.I. and other governments in Canada are “letting people into the country without a plan for where they will live, or what that means to local infrastructure.”

Yalnizyan said it’s not just that there aren’t plans for services; she also said there’s “insufficient funding to make sure we keep up with the things that people need to live.”

A woman with glasses smiles into the camera.
‘It’s really difficult to say “Let’s add people and stir” without a recipe that goes along with it,’ says Armine Yalnizyan, an economist and Atkinson Fellow for the Future of Workers. (Christian Patry/CBC)

She said plans to accommodate growing populations should also account for the need for infrastructure. That includes water and sewer services, roads, waste disposal systems and electricity distribution.

“I think it’s really difficult to say ‘Let’s add people and stir’ without a recipe that goes along with it.”

Bringing in specialized staff

P.E.I. has been shaping its immigration programs, at least in part, to try to recruit desperately needed construction and health-care workers.

But there are also dozens of restaurants that need staff, including many of the leading fast food chains that have been designated under the Atlantic Immigration Program

That program allows businesses to bring in workers as permanent residents for jobs that can’t be filled locally.

While population growth is booming, outmigration from P.E.I. to other provinces has also reached its highest level in decades.

It’s also worth noting that the province has had to expand its shelter capacity to accommodate the growing number of Islanders experiencing homelessness. Over the past two years, many of them have resorted to sleeping in tents.

A woman with long brown hair and glasses stands on a university campus.
Ann Wheatley of the Cooper Institute says encouraging growth without an appropriate investment in supports for the new people will prove to be ‘all for naught.’ (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

Ann Wheatley with the Cooper Institute said the economic benefits from the population boom aren’t being shared equally among residents of Prince Edward Island.

“If you’re not investing in people, and in the infrastructure that they need, the supports they need, then I’m not sure why we’re boasting about economic growth,” she said.

“If we don’t have the plan to invest and to maintain and build the structures we need to support people, then it’s all for naught.”


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