Last week the Strait Region Vital Signs report, an initiative of the Strait Region Society for Children, Youth and Families, supported by the Community Foundation of Nova Scotia, was released and the overall assessment for Guysborough County is far from positive. The report was developed through conversations across the Quad Counties and statistics gathered from the 2016 census that focus on children, youth and families across the region. A press release announcing the launch of the report, states that it “presents a call to action for the community on a number of fronts: Community Belonging, Economy/Employment, Housing, Food Security/Health Eating, Transportation/Communication, Health, and Growth/Development.”
Outmigration has long been a concern here and often the impetus for many development proposals in the Strait area. But whatever projects have gotten off the ground, none of them has managed to stem the outflowing tide, according to the Vital Signs report. From 2011 to 2016 Guysborough County had the greatest population decrease in the study area, down six per cent, while the province as a whole has maintained its overall population. Guysborough County also has the lowest percentage of youth 0-18 years old, at 19 per cent, and the highest number of seniors at 31 per cent of the total population.
The demographic make-up of Guysborough County has an impact on employment figures. The area has the lowest percentage of people in employment for both men and women, 44 and 39 per cent respectively, with the highest percentage of people not in the labour force in the Quad Counties. The top three industry sectors in Guysborough County are agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting; health care and social assistance; and construction. Retail trade makes up a significant portion of employment in the three other counties covered in the report – Antigonish, Richmond and Inverness—but doesn’t crack the top three sectors in Guysborough County.
Along with low rates of employment, Guysborough County also has the highest low-income rate in the Quad Counties: 20 per cent for men and 24 per cent for women. The report states, “Employment and income are two of the strongest determinants of health and are essential markers of the wellness of a community. With the exception of Antigonish, all three other counties in the Strait Region have median after-tax household incomes below the provincial level.”
Low incomes are linked to child poverty and Guysborough County has the highest rate of child poverty in the study area. One in four children in the county live in low income households.
A living wage is required to pull children and their families out of poverty. Earnings of $17.30 an hour were calculated to be a living wage for Antigonish County by the Antigonish Poverty Reduction Coalition in 2016; the minimum wage in the province currently stands at $11.05 to $11.55 an hour.
Childcare is an important factor in the employability of parents, but there is not one licensed daycare provider in Guysborough County. This impacts employment opportunities for all families, but especially single-parent lead families. These early years are important for future development and while the Strait area has the highest graduation rate in the province at 97 per cent, Guysborough County has the highest rate of adults with less than a high school education, at 34 per cent.
Guysborough County also has the highest rate of children (28 per cent) and seniors (15 per cent) using the food bank in the Quad Counties. Straight area schools are working to compensate for this shortfall in nutrition for the region’s children by offering a breakfast program every school day.
In today’s economy, work is often tied to internet availability and speed. Internet access has long been an issue in Guysborough County, impacting business, health, safety, and population growth. The report states that “nationally, 7 in 10 internet users say they would be unlikely to purchase a home in an area that didn’t have high-speed internet.” The Quad Counties, outside of Antigonish, have very low upload and download speeds, and compared to the national average (average download 41.2 Mbps, average upload 17.5 Mbps), we’re playing with tin cans and string—Guysborough County’s average upload and download speeds are 3.45 Mbps and 1.31 Mbps respectively.
But despite all these challenges, the reported rate of community belonging is highest in the Strait area at 81 per cent, compared to the provincial (75 per cent) and the national (68 per cent) averages.
The report concludes by proposing suggestions for residents to tackle the multitude of issues highlighted in the previous pages. These include supporting local business, advocating for a living wage, supporting and donating to local food banks, and demanding widespread cell phone coverage and high-speed Internet access. Given the severity of these challenges, the recommendations fall far short of being solutions.