With Manitoba's population increasing (mainly due to immigration), KPMG's business competitiveness survey rating Winnipeg as a low-cost place to do business, and a new StatsCan report showing Winnipeg head office jobs increased in 2012, it is easy to be complacent about Manitoba's prospects.
Yet, storm clouds approach.
MoneySense magazine recently rated Winnipeg as the 19th best city to live in Canada, continuing the Peg's fall (it was 10th only a couple of years ago). When I was born, Winnipeg was the third-largest city in Canada, now we are eighth, and that by a hair. Winnipeg once was the pride of the West, the northern Chicago with the most millionaires of any city in Canada. Now, we are north of Grand Forks.
With B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan booming and co-operating with each other, we are left on the sidelines, increasingly referred to as Central Canada. The three western provinces offer better employment opportunities, pay higher wages and levy much lower personal taxes.
And, while the "new" three-province Western Canada has managed to grow industry and return annual provincial budgets toward black ink, Manitoba wallows in debt and keeps spending beyond its means amid hopes of keeping the industry it has.
More than 1,500 high-paying jobs have or will soon disappear with operational cutbacks at HudBay and Vale, and Tembec's closure.
I have lived most of my life in Winnipeg. More recently, my wife and I spend four months each year in Palm Springs and at least two months each summer at a Manitoba lake. You can be outside Manitoba for seven months every year and not lose your medical coverage; just keep your permanent residence here and pay your taxes.
Why do we remain in Manitoba? The answer is the ties that bind.
Over the decades, I have seen many relatives and friends off, including my sister and her family, who moved to British Columbia. Other relatives and friends relocated not only to B.C., but also to Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario and the Maritimes. Our oldest daughter left for Calgary more than 10 years ago, with no intention to return. I cannot recall a single year in the past half-century when thousands of Manitobans didn't leave. Some moved for a job, or a better one, others retired to warmer climes. Some left to be closer to their relocated children.
There is much to value in Manitoba -- friendly people, multiculturalism, Assiniboine Park, Assiniboia Downs, our lakes, the Prairie, Grand Beach, Churchill and those bears, Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, ballet, music, professional sport teams and, soon, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.
Wonderful experiences, however, are not the ties that bind. Those are family, friends and individual economic circumstances. When family members or close friends move, we who stay lose. Those ties that keep us here begin to fray and break.
It is splendid that Manitoba, and the prospect of being a Canadian, can attract more than 10,000 immigrants from foreign lands each year, but should we not, while celebrating the newcomers, concern ourselves about the ongoing outflow?
They include professionals, those in the trades, business owners, the retired and just ordinary folks. While statistics are regularly released on the origins of the immigrants, little is said about the composition of those who leave and why they left.
We need to focus on keeping those who are now here, here. We bring them up and educate them, at great expense, emotional as well as financial. We cannot be successful if we are unable to retain our young.
Government is moving to drive up the cost of owning a cottage in provincial parks so high even the pioneer cottage families, who broke the land to first build in the magnificent wild, are feeling the pinch and selling.
Often it was their grandparents who built their cottage and passed it down to following generations. Ironically, many are working-class families, once a priority of NDP governments.
Statistics show Manitoba has a much larger public sector than the Canadian average. While our government fixates on the 120,000 or so employees on the public payroll, it needs to start paying more attention to the other 500,000 in the province's employment base.
Manitoba needs more new and expanding industries that pay good wages. As matters now stand, with high personal taxes and burdensome regulations, are new industries likely to come? Will the ones we have stay and expand?
We cannot change our winter weather, but we don't need to levy taxes and fees higher than our western neighbours.
Unless the current strategy changes, Manitoba will always trail our western neighbours and be dependent on federal largesse. Relying on transfer payments from Ottawa amid a high-tax low-wage policy model reliant on borrowing and risky mega-projects is no way to build a vibrant and prosperous Manitoba.
If nothing changes, the years ahead will see thousands more leave each year.
Not prepared to move away from our children and grandchildren, we will most likely die here, as will those other friends that are in the same boat as us.
Graham Lane is a retired chartered accountant. He was Chairman of the public Utilities Board from 2004-2012. His grandparents emigrated to Manitoba 100 years ago.