Anything we can do to bring home ‘the departed’? | UNB

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JDI Roundtable on Manufacturing Competitiveness in New Brunswick

Anything we can do to bring home ‘the departed’?

Herb Emery

Last week I had the opportunity to make a presentation on universities as a potential economic driver for New Brunswick to a group of successful UNB business school alumni, now living in Toronto. The venue was on a high floor in a tall building on Bay Street with views of other tall buildings, something we don’t see in the picture province.

In his opening remarks for the evening, former New Brunswick premier Frank McKenna expressed his strong belief in this province’s potential to be an economic success. He highlighted the potential that could come from harnessing the knowledge, ability, entrepreneurial spirit and capital of Canadian business leaders who are “from New Brunswick” but no longer “in New Brunswick.” What would it take to bring that talent, or at least their investment dollars, home?

My experience in Toronto had me thinking about a 2011 novel by Tom Perrotta, later made into a television series called The Leftovers. In the novel, there’s a sudden, unexplained disappearance of two per cent of the global population, who leave those left behind to figure out what’s next for them and to try to understand why others, and not themselves, were “chosen” to depart.

Many of the Leftovers, facing extreme spiritual crisis, band together in a cult named the Guilty Remnant. Cult members spend their time waiting for “the end,” provoking the other remnants to remember the losses of the “sudden departure” and how meaningless life is.

While the departure of New Brunswickers has not been sudden, losing one per cent of the population per year through out-migration for a decade isn’t far off of the novel’s premise. And the indifference of remnant New Brunswickers to the “departure” has made it a largely unexplained phenomenon.

But unlike the novel, the challenges of the “Leftovers” in New Brunswick aren’t so personal or spiritual; it’s more economic and political at this point. Which makes sense if you look at rural New Brunswick where the young are gone and schools and hospitals are threatened with closure.

I will leave it to readers to decide which interests and groups in New Brunswick are most like the Guilty Remnant cult. A look at the debate over the Maritime Iron project, in which some people have encouraged the province to meet its carbon reduction targets by cleansing the jurisdiction of heavy industry, may identify some good candidates.

Of course there are some other differences between the Sudden Departure premise and New Brunswick’s situation. In the novel, the population that disappeared suddenly was a random selection. In New Brunswick our “departed” are not a random selection; they are university educated and young. But I have yet to hear an explanation for why so many educated young leave New Brunswick that doesn’t amount to “they have crossed over to a better place.”

Unlike in the novel and television series, the departed still visit their parents and grandparents, who are the remnants. You can visit the departed where they disappeared to like I did last week, and in the past when I lived among many former New Brunswickers in Alberta. The departed walk among, or around us, every summer. Many still maintain a presence in the province but not in a way that is engaged with business or in a way that depends on local economic success.

They vacation here, visit those left behind and temporarily enjoy rural and small town living as an escape from their big city existence. Their departure was physical but also psychological, in the sense of emotional and pecuniary disengagement from the province and its struggles.

New Brunswick is a subject of “polite parlor conversation” for the departed, like poverty has always been for middle class and well off Canadians – i.e. it’s interesting enough to talk about, but not important enough to address. We are too small to matter for most Canadians’ daily lives, but can sometimes be an interesting curiosity for discussion when something odd happens or where the latest in our political soap opera makes some headline through a newswire.

But for the most part we are out of sight, out of mind, and firewalled off from having any important impact on the departed. They don’t have much interest in New Brunswick politics or our regional or other “tribal” conflicts that consume much of our days and topple our governments.

Frank McKenna asked this question: If you took all the business talent from New Brunswick, that is making Toronto and Canada rich, and move it to New Brunswick, or even encourage investing in the province, what would the province look like today?

Would the departed come back? My impression from conversations with the departed is that they do browse real estate listings in the province, particularly waterfront property. Big city living comes with an irrational fixation on property ownership, to the extent that many of the departed in Toronto suffer from house envy and our real estate listings are like “property porn,” selling a fantasy of seaside living in a massive house for $1 million or less.

But is the low cost seaside house enough to bring them back? My sense is that what makes our property a source of fantasy for the departed is that they don’t picture a career in New Brunswick like they can have, or believe that they potentially can have, in Toronto or the other big cities. As many of us who have lived in larger cities know, there is a sense that leaving a metropolis means losing one’s spot at a shot at the prize.

Or worse, for many in their 30s, there can be a loss of self-esteem that comes with being viewed as unable to cut it in a big place. According to Marshall Button, for instance, failed returnees to Dalhousie were known as “Boston Dickies.” The departed worry that they can’t earn enough here to maintain their quality of life, even with the lower-priced houses and the shorter commuting times.

New Brunswick, with its aging population and labour shortages, finally has the jobs that so many governments have sought to create, but those jobs are not seen as real opportunities. And based on studies of return migrant earnings, they are not wrong.

Occasionally some of these people do return after their futures are set and they try to save New Brunswick. With their wisdom from being away, there must be something that they can do, right? But coming back later in life as most of New Brunswick in-migrants have done is not always appreciated by the remnants. The latter believe they know better about what the province needs and they claim they are the ones vested in the future of the province.

But of course the bigger problem is that the vocal and politically active Guilty Remnants of New Brunswick do not want the province to be saved, at least in its current resource-based and industrial incarnation that saddles us with carbon and environmental sins.

So why aren’t we trying to find out what it would take to get the departed to move home, or at least invest here? In theory, we could learn what’s missing here and what we could do to improve.

The silence of the departed is may be a polite silence, where if you can’t say something nice, then why say anything at all? But more likely, it is the rational response of some smart, motivated people to what they see as unfixable problems: cut your losses and move on.

One thing I have experienced with businesspeople is that they don’t have a lot of time for unfixable problems. And I would guess that what keeps the departed from coming back to work and invest in New Brunswick is that the culture and politics, which pushed them to greener pastures, hasn’t changed.

Herb Emery is a Brunswick News columnist and Vaughan Chair of Regional Economics at the University of New Brunswick.

This article first appeared in Brunswick News publications – March 4, 2020

The JDI Roundtable on Manufacturing Competitiveness in New Brunswick is an independent research program made possible through the generosity of J.D. Irving, Ltd. The funding supports arms-length research conducted at UNB.