What is it about Moncton that New Brunswick just doesn’t get?


What is it about Moncton? While Saint John’s population and economy continue to decline, and New Brunswick is the only province in Canada to be actually shrinking, Moncton keeps growing. And growing at a pace that’s often times better than the rest of Canada. Obviously, they’re doing something right.

Some of that success comes from “intra-provincial migration” says Moncton Mayor Dawn Arnold. What she means is the population outmigration of mainly French-speaking people from job-deprived northern New Brunswick moving south to Greater Moncton. 

Bilingualism is certainly one of Moncton’s assets. Most of Moncton speaks fluent French and English in the only province in Canada that’s officially bilingual. But that’s not the only reason Moncton is flourishing.

Unlike Saint John and Fredericton, Moncton is not a one-industry town. Where Saint John is home to Irving’s oil and forestry empires, and Fredericton is home to the institutional sector including UNB and the provincial government, Moncton’s main advantage is the diversity of its businesses and its strategic location as a link on CN to Halifax.

But that wasn’t always the case. Before the late 1980s, Moncton was also a one-industry town, the eastern headquarters for Canadian National Railway. That all changed when CNR decided to shutter most of its operations there in 1988. Other industries followed suit, shutting down operations and moving west. Thousands were out of work. By 1990 unemployment in Moncton topped 20 percent.

CNR Moncton Shops, May 1940

Rather than giving up, Moncton pinned its future on innovation and diversifying—not the resource sector. It took advantage of Frank McKenna’s economic plan, putting people to work in bilingual call centres. Later, it invested in building a fibre optic backbone network to attract new tech businesses. Today, Greater Moncton is in the top five fastest growing Canadian regions—and the fastest growing east of Saskatoon—with a population of roughly 145,000. And the city has been growing at about 5 percent a year for the past decade.

At the same time New Brunswick communities that depend on the resource sector are tanking. That includes Miramichi, Sussex and Saint John. In a bit of economic sleight of hand the provincial government announced that financially and demographically collapsing Miramichi was chosen as the site for a 240-bed nursing home, the province’s largest. Said Premier Brian Gallant when announcing that project, we “will achieve our goals of creating jobs, growing our economy and supporting families.” The unwritten subtext being written by the New Brunswick government is that aging is the region’s most promising growth industry. Imagine that. 

Meanwhile, Moncton is looking for 3000 immigrants to fill projected job vacancies. Simply put, Moncton has learned to be opportunistic. For instance, other than Moncton, no other city benefits from the New Brunswick government’s ‘drive-through, build-more-superhighways’ strategy. It is now aiming to be the “Hub City of the Maritime provinces”, connecting Atlantic Canada to Europe and the rest of the world. Take that, Halifax.

What Moncton has—and seeks—is diversity. Geography helps. Moncton’s location on the rail line between Quebec and Nova Scotia has gifted it with two intersecting cultures, French and English, co-locating in the city and interacting on a daily basis. Unlike the francophone north and the anglophone southwest, Moncton has been a diverse cultural centre from the outset. It’s roots have been nourished by cultural diversity, which has made the leap from single-industry town to diverse cosmopolitan economy much easier. Which is easy to see in retrospect.

It’s not quite that easy for nearby Saint John, just a two-hour drive west. Saint Johners are still very much imbued with the old Loyalist culture, a more culturally vertical (with arguably a wider divide between ‘haves’ and have-nots’) and a less inclusive culture. And the economic power of the resident Irving empires has always tended to suck innovation out of the room, while ensuring a certain economic stability.

The same pattern holds across southwest New Brunswick, with large, resource-based and manufacturing corporations like Connors, Cooke Aquaculture, Arauco (Flakeboard), Ganong and Paturel dominating the local economic landscape. It’s not diversity driving the bus here, it’s plain old market dominance—and trying to fill minimum wage jobs.

Back east, on the other side of the province, Moncton has been chosen as one of the top-seven intelligent communities in the world. Go figure.

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