09/26/2013 05:51 EDT | Updated 11/26/2013 05:12 EST

Outmigration figures provide fodder for Nova Scotia election campaign

HALIFAX - New figures on outmigration provided ammunition on the campaign trail Thursday as Nova Scotia's main party leaders clashed over how to kick-start the province's economy to stop the flow of workers to Western Canada.

The figures from Statistics Canada show that Nova Scotia's population dropped by 900 from April 1 until July 1 of this year, leaving the province with 940,800 people. That is the largest population decrease for that time period since 1972.

Preliminary estimates from the agency indicate the province lost 1,100 people in interprovincial migration exchanges with Alberta during that same time span.

The figures made for fodder during a radio debate hosted by News 95.7, where Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie accused Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil of having no plan to reverse that trend.

Baillie said high business taxes and electricity costs are contributing to the problem.

McNeil, who said better apprenticeship and training programs are the way to attract and retain people, responded with a personal anecdote.

"I have a son who left this province to go to Alberta." he said. "It wasn't because of high taxes. It wasn't because of power rates. It was because he had no job."

Baillie countered, "They are actually related Stephen. That's what you don't get."

Premier Darrell Dexter also challenged McNeil on the matter, taking issue with the Liberal leader's promise not to offer forgivable loans to attract private investment.

"He would force companies out of this province, so he would drive down employment," Dexter said, who has defended his government's assistance to lure companies in an effort to grow the economy.

Following the debate, all three leaders discussed the need to negotiate with Ottawa to increase immigration numbers through the nominee business stream.

Dexter pointed out that Ottawa had recently agreed to a one-time increase in that cap to as many as 750 new immigrants from 500. But he said the program is not meeting the province's needs because it doesn't address the disparity created by its aging and declining population.

"It speaks to the need for us to do everything we can to attract business into the province," said Dexter.

Baillie said the federal cap is wrong and he believes he has a better chance than his opponents of convincing Ottawa to change it.

"That's the question before Nova Scotians is who can go and make the changes to our economy necessary to give us our strongest position and go to Ottawa and get that cap lifted," Baillie said.

McNeil said such a move would take an effort involving all political parties and business leaders.

"As we move toward building an immigration strategy, we will bring in new Nova Scotians who bring capital for investment into the province and job creation," said McNeil.