As the warmer days of summer beckon, I often think of the thousands of tourists who will soon begin flocking to our island. As we promote her to others, it's a sure bet that as our tourism promotion suggests, "to know our island is to know she's an unyielding beauty, one which breeds a fierce spirit, resolute pride, and resilient communities knit together by tradition."
Make no mistake, I love Cape Breton/Unama'ki, its beauty and its people. I love that Canadians are so enamoured with what I believe to be one of the grandest places in all of Canada.
Yet, the only thing matching my love for our home is my concern for its future sustainability in the economic sense.
As island people, we face real economic challenges in the here and now - and those of you who know me are aware that for a while now, I've been actively inspiring deep discussion about how, where, and by what means, we can and should direct our collective future.
This collective future is so very important to me, as Cape Breton/Unama'ki and Membertou are my home. This island has been the ancestral home of the Mi'kmaw Nation — our elders believe our forefathers have been here for nearly 13,000 years.
But despite its beauty, the warmth of its people and wonder of its geography, there are some difficult truths about our island we need to acknowledge and with which we must grapple now.
First, let's look at the analysis of Cape Breton's population. During the 25-year period from 1991 to 2016, our population declined by almost 30,000 people, a number equivalent to the population of the former City of Sydney.
Over the last 10 years, Cape Breton's population has had the greatest percentage decline compared to other economic regions in the province. What's more, in the last 10 years, all five municipalities in Cape Breton have seen declines in population.
Despite this, the First Nation population in Cape Breton is increasing.
With regard to our youth, when we compare the percentage change for our youth population (those under 15 years of age), Cape Breton shows the second-worst percentage change. It's likely that the increase in First Nation youth population in Cape Breton has kept us from being the worst in this regard.
The bottom line is that our youth population has declined by slightly over 4,000 people in the last 10 years.
To put these numbers in perspective, in 1999-2000 school year, there were 67 Primary-to-Grade 12 schools in the former Cape Breton Victoria District School Board.
By the spring of 2017, there were just 41 schools open. And this number was reduced by a further 17 for the 2018-2019 school year. The net of all this is that in a little less than 20 years, the number of P-12 schools in the former Cape Breton Victoria District School Board will have dropped from 67 to 24.
Let's turn to the rate of employment. Cape Breton's numbers are far below the Canadian and Nova Scotia rates of employment. We're currently at 45.3% while Nova Scotia's rate is 56.6% and Canada's is 61.1%.
So, in real numbers, we have 47,610 people employed in Cape Breton. Yet, if we shared Nova Scotia's rate of employment, we would have almost 12,000 more people employed; if we had Canada's, we'd have almost 17,000 more people employed.
Let's deal specifically with the Cape Breton Regional Municipality (CBRM). When we compare the median household income for the CBRM with that of the rest of Canada and of Nova Scotia, we again fall below. When we compare the percentage of children under age six living in poverty, CBRM's rate is higher than that of both Nova Scotia and Canada.
Our tourism slogan reminds visitors that "your heart will never leave." For those of us living here our hearts aren't leaving — our young people are.
I believe we've seen the writing on the wall for some time now. The sagging population numbers are just the symptom of a bigger problem. That problem is our economy — or the lack of a sustainable one.
Thankfully, we've begun a dialogue about this critical issue. There are myriad forces, friends and factions deliberating the way forward or to at least determine options worthy of pursuit.
The time has never been better for such a debate. The dialogue is already underway about our island, its people and our future. And not a moment too soon.
Churchill once wrote, "It is wonderful what great strides can be made when there is a resolute purpose behind them."
Senator Christmas represents Nova Scotia in the Senate.
This article was published in the July 2, 2019, edition of the Cape Breton Post.