Census 2016: Western provinces’ populations are the fastest-growing in Canada
Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Canada’s population growth is shifting westward, as the latest census results show the Prairie region and British Columbia leading the country in growth.

For the first time since Confederation the three Prairie provinces all rank at the top of provincial growth charts, nosing out a slowing Ontario. British Columbia, in fourth place, also grew at a rate higher than the national average. Nearly one in three residents now live in Western Canada, the highest share ever recorded.

Statistics Canada counted a total of 35,151,728 people living in Canada on the day of the census, May 10, 2016. Over the five years since the previous census the population grew at a rate of about one per cent a year, or 5 per cent overall since 2011, for a total of 1.7 million additional residents since 2011.

As it has been for the last 15 years, Canada remains the fastest-growing country in the G7 group of industrialized nations, with a growth rate which exceeds those of the United States and the United Kingdom. Canada ranked eighth among the G20 nations, behind countries such as Turkey, South Africa, Mexico and Australia.

The main reason for Canada’s steady growth is its commitment to relatively high levels of immigration. Roughly two-thirds of Canada’s population increase is due to international migration, the amount by which the number of new immigrants exceeds the number of people who leave Canada, according to Laurent Martel of Statistics Canada. The other third stems from what’s known as “natural growth,” the difference between the rates of births and deaths. Some countries such as Germany, Italy and Japan have already seen the annual number of deaths exceed births, meaning all their growth now depends on migration.

For much of the census period Canada’s annual intake of immigrants exceeded 250,000 per year. In 2017 the government has projected an immigration level of between 280,000 and 320,000, the highest it has been in some time. At a time when many countries are considering further restrictions on immigration, Canada, under both Liberal and Conservative governments, has chosen a different path. Projections show that Canada could reach the point at which migration accounts for nearly all population growth some time after 2050.

While population growth is fairly steady nationally, there are major differences at the regional level. As population booms in Western Canada, Central Canada has seen growth slide below the national average, and Atlantic Canada is barely growing at all.

Alberta was the fastest-growing province in Canada again during this period. Despite the downturn in the provincial economy in the past two years, Alberta grew by 11.6 per cent, an even faster rate of growth than from 2006 to 2011 and more than twice the national average. That growth slowed after 2014, following the drop in the price of oil, but not enough to change the broader trend, as people both within Canada and from abroad head west in search of economic opportunity. Since 1951 Alberta has grown by more than 330 per cent, by far the highest rate among provinces. Alberta also has the highest percentage of residents born in other Canadian provinces, a testament to its pull within the country.

Martha Hall Findlay, president of the Canada West Foundation, said the census numbers reflect the dynamism and openness of the region. A former Liberal MP from Ontario, she moved to Alberta a year ago and already considers herself a Calgarian. The place is full of people like her, she said – people who have moved from elsewhere and who have found an exciting, younger population, growing, affordable cities and plenty of opportunity.

“Attention needs to be paid to what’s going on in the West,” Ms. Hall Findlay said. “There’s a sense here of ‘What can we do?’ Not what can we keep doing.”

Saskatchewan, which was shrinking in the 1990s, grew at the second-fastest rate, just as it did in the previous census period. It has similarly benefited from a resource-intensive economy that attracted a lot of workers in the early part of this decade before the economy began to slow.

Manitoba jumped into third place among provinces with a 5.8-per-cent rate of growth. It’s the first time in 80 years that Manitoba grew more quickly than the national average. Like the other Prairie provinces, Manitoba has a significant indigenous population, which is much younger than the population in general and has a higher birth rate. The province has succeeded in attracting a greater share of international migration in recent years. One of the areas that has grown most quickly is Steinbach, a community about 40 minutes east of Winnipeg. Steinbach, which has a population of 15,289, grew by 17 per cent in this census period, making it one of the 10 fastest-growing communities under 100,000 in the country.

Steinbach’s mayor, Chris Goertzen, said the community decided 15 years ago to make itself a welcoming place to attract immigrants. Manitoba was the first province to take significant advantage of the provincial nominee immigration program, a program designed to get immigrants to places other than the big cities of Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, and Steinbach became one of the places to benefit. People have arrived from dozens of countries, but Mr. Goertzen said the Philippines, Germany and Kazakhstan are among the most prominent.

British Columbia slipped to fourth place in its rate of growth at 5.6 per cent, although it was still the third-largest province.

Ontario grew by 4.6 per cent, the second-consecutive census period in which it grew at a rate slower than the national average. It’s the first time that’s happened since the Second World War. Ontario still has by far the largest share of the national population, with more than 13 million people, or 38 per cent of Canada’s population. The main reason for its slower growth is that it received proportionally fewer immigrants over the last five years.

Quebec’s rate of growth was below the national average, a trend that’s been in place since the end of the 1960s. Its share of the national population, which was nearly 29 per cent in 1966, fell to slightly more than 23 per cent in 2016. Quebec passed the eight-million mark in overall population, and the Montreal area surpassed four million for the first time, meaning half the provincial population is concentrated around its biggest city.

The Atlantic provinces had much lower rates of growth in this census period. New Brunswick’s population declined over the past five years by 0.5 per cent. Prince Edward Island had the highest growth rate in the Atlantic at 1.9 per cent, followed by Newfoundland at 1.0 per cent. Nova Scotia barely grew, with an increase of just 0.2 per cent. The region is growing more slowly because it attracts few immigrants, and many people choose to move to other provinces, chiefly Alberta and Ontario. In 2014 the number of deaths exceeded the number of births in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and New Brunswick.

“It’s staring us in the face again that immigration is a pretty fundamental component of maintaining positive population growth. It really comes home in the Atlantic region, where you have an aging population,” said Finn Poschmann, president of the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council.

“The other striking thing is the urban-rural split. That’s a big deal across Canada but really powerfully so in the Atlantic provinces,” he said. The Atlantic’s four census metropolitan areas (CMAs) grew collectively by about 3 per cent, whereas the smaller centres were either just stable or lost people.

Greater Toronto’s population surpassed 5.9 million, but it grew at a slower rate in this census period, at about 6 per cent, compared with more than 9 per cent from 2006 to 2011. The Montreal area topped four million for the first time in 2011, and Greater Vancouver had nearly 2.5 million. The five fastest-growing cities were all in the Prairies, led by Calgary and Edmonton, which both surpassed 1.3 million residents, and Saskatoon and Regina (295,000 and 236,000, respectively). Just two of Canada’s CMAs fell in this census period – Windsor and Thunder Bay.

The census counted more than 14 million private dwellings in 2016, an increase of 5.6 per cent over 2011, a slightly slower rate of increase than in the previous census period.

The census results released Wednesday were the first in a series scheduled to come out over the course of 2017. These results are taken from the short-form census questionnaire and not the long-form survey, which was reinstated for 2016 after being replaced by the voluntary National Household Survey.

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Source: The Globe and Mail / Joe Friesen / Tom Cardoso