Until this year, Graeme Berwick’s biggest online purchases were a couple of pairs of jeans and some household appliances.
Then the Toronto man bought a house 1,200 kilometres away.
“We hadn’t even seen it, except for in a couple of videos,” he said in a Zoom interview from the new home he shares with his partner near the community of Tusket in southwest Nova Scotia. “It was big steps for us.”
Berwick and his partner are two of the tens thousands of people who crossed the Nova Scotia border in early 2021 for work, pleasure or to move to the province, some of that travel encouraged at the time by provincial officials and a million-dollar “Work from Nova Scotia” advertising campaign aimed at luring people to the province.
The number of people applying to enter increased sharply in late March and into April, according to numbers provided to CBC by the province under access-to-information laws.
But after several months of trying to draw interprovincial migrants, Nova Scotia suddenly found itself trying to stop them, at least temporarily. The new numbers show the spurt came just before Nova Scotia was hit by the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, which brought fresh provincial border restrictions and other public health measures.
A big life change
If not for the pandemic, Berwick would never have considered moving to Nova Scotia. He previously lived near Toronto’s Pearson Airport so that he could fly often to Europe, the Middle East and Africa for his work helping to open new hotels.
Now 55, Berwick was hoping to retire at 60. Much of his work dried up during the pandemic, and what remained could be done remotely. Berwick and his partner decided to sell their Toronto house and move to an area with lower house prices.
After doing some online research they looked east to New Brunswick and then to Nova Scotia. A cousin in the United Kingdom noticed the province’s “Work from Nova Scotia” campaign, which used the pandemic trend of working from home to encourage people to move to the province, and told Berwick about it.
“He said, ‘You know, they’ve got this migrant program where they can work.’ And I said, ‘That’s fantastic.’ At the time I didn’t even consider that that was aimed at someone like me in Toronto,” Berwick said.
Berwick completed the move in May and now lives and works from home on a lake near Tusket.
“I’m now living in a house which is equal in size if not slightly larger than the one we had in Toronto, and we have enough money in the bank now — I’m 55 — we have enough money in the bank now to see me to my 70s,” he said.
More than 46,000 applications
Using access-to-information laws, CBC asked the province to release a breakdown of how many people used the “Safe Check In” website to apply to enter the province from the beginning of 2021 until the day new border restrictions were announced on April 20.
Only a small group of people didn’t need to use the online form to apply to enter, including truck drivers, those with compassionate exemptions, people who live on one side of the border and work on the other, and essential health-care workers.
Aside from a high travel week immediately following the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, the trend showed a steady increase in entries between February and mid-April, with the majority of people responding that they were entering for work, personal reasons, coming home or moving.
In total, the province logged 46,607 entry applications.
The increase, which was steepest in late March and early April, concerned Public Health. At the April 20 COVID-19 briefing, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang made reference to a “significant” increase, saying border officers told him of a 400 per cent jump in crossings at the land border with New Brunswick.
Work from N.S. campaign
In early May, as COVID-19 case numbers soared, the province introduced new rules effectively preventing people from another province from moving to Nova Scotia, although within days they were loosened somewhat after significant criticism.
It was a far cry from just a few weeks earlier when the province was actively trying to bring people to Nova Scotia to live and work.
In December, the province launched the “Work from Nova Scotia” campaign, which ran until the end of March. For $1.1-million, Tourism Nova Scotia and other Crown corporations ran an advertising campaign with tourism-style videos, social media, advertisements and a website about moving to Nova Scotia.
Last week, Statistics Canada released new data that showed a gain of 1,870 interprovincial migrants between January and April, with 4,700 people moving to the province and 2,830 moving away. It pushed Nova Scotia to its highest population ever.
The new numbers were welcomed by Inclusive Economic Growth Minister Labi Kousoulis, the minister responsible for Tourism Nova Scotia, who said last Thursday the campaign went “very well.”
“That was the most we’ve had since the early 1980s, so it’s a campaign that was very positive,” he said of interprovincial migration.
“When the third wave hit we did put it on pause, and we’ll have discussions and look at the data we have in terms of running it again, because Nova Scotia is an attractive place for people to live and work in.”
The campaign’s digital ads were seen 371 million times, the video ads were watched 38.9 million times and the website with guidance for moving to the province was visited 1.3 million times.
By comparison, in the year before the pandemic Tourism Nova Scotia used travel “influencers” to put its marketing campaign in front of an estimated 765 million people.
In February, one of the Crown corporations behind the “Work from Nova Scotia” campaign told CBC the goal was to bring 15,000 people to Nova Scotia within one year.
Kousoulis said the province is examining issues such as housing and availability of doctors, which may be put under additional pressure by more people moving to Nova Scotia. He also noted that along with an increased population unemployment has dropped.
It is difficult to determine how many of the people who entered Nova Scotia this year were directly influenced by the campaign. Laurel Broten, the head of Crown corporation Nova Scotia Business Inc., said in February the campaign was working on a way to measure how many people the advertising drew to the province.
Every year since the beginning of 2016, according to Statistics Canada, the province has seen more people moving from other provinces to Nova Scotia than leaving.
In the first three months of 2020, the agency estimated there was a total gain of 573 people for the province through interprovincial migration, and an estimated total gain of 540 people in the first three months of 2019.