What the 2021 census tells us about Canada’s changing population

Home WorkforceWhat the 2021 census tells us about Canada’s changing population

Statistics Canada rolled out the first batch of data from the 2021 census early February, offering a picture of an urbanizing country whose growth was too robust for the COVID-19 pandemic to squelch.

By Oliver Moore* – Feb 2022

The data show Canada’s population grew by 5.2 per cent from 2016 through 2021, bringing the total to 36,991,981 people. Most of that increase came in the first four of those years. The final year, during the pandemic, had the lowest growth since the First World War. The agency said it did not model how much more the population might have grown had the pandemic not emerged.

The census data also show a turnaround in the long trend of population loss in the Maritimes, and an increased rate of population growth in city centres.

For most of the downtowns of the 41 large urban centres of the country, population growth actually accelerated in the last five years, compared to the previous five-year period.

Laurent Martel, director of the Centre for Demography at Statistics Canada

“For most of the downtowns of the 41 large urban centres of the country, population growth actually accelerated in the last five years, compared to the previous five-year period,” said Laurent Martel, director of the Centre for Demography at Statistics Canada.

The agency acknowledged it was difficult to conduct a census during a pandemic and praised Canadians who participated in spite of the third wave of COVID-19. It said the response rate was 98 per cent.

This is only one of seven tranches of census 2021 data Statscan is expected to release. The agency will publish data on the country’s shifting demographic profile in April. Additional data on income, housing, mobility and other themes will come throughout the year.

Growth in the Maritimes

For years, the story of the Maritime provinces has been one of people leaving, but the latest census data show, from 2016 through 2021, more people moved to or were born in the three provinces than died there or left, for the first time since the early 1980s. And reversing an eight-decade pattern, population growth in the Maritimes outstripped that in the Prairie provinces.

The growth was largely due to immigration, according to Statscan, but also resulted from Canadians moving east. Although the agency says it is too early to know for sure whether any of this was due to the pandemic, an official there said COVID-19 could have played a role.

“In the 2020 to 2021 period … Halifax did track more migrants from Ontario [than from other provinces], possibly due to Canadians being able to work from home and lower housing costs,” said Larry MacNabb, a director-general in the social, health and labour statistics field at Statistics Canada.

At the time, Ontario was being hit by waves of pandemic restrictions and, in many of its cities, surging real estate prices.

Over the five-year census period, all three Maritime provinces saw growth. Prince Edward Island registered an 8-per-cent increase, the highest among all 10 Canadian provinces. Nova Scotia grew by 5 per cent and New Brunswick by 3.8 per cent. The entire region added about 85,000 people, to reach a population of 1,899,324.

Newfoundland and Labrador, which is not included in the Maritimes, was the outlier. Its population fell by 1.8 per cent, representing about 9,000 people.

The increased Maritime population is a welcome addition to the region’s labour force, Atlantic Provinces Economic Council senior researcher Patrick Brannon said. But, he added, there’s a psychological benefit as well.

“For 30 years, we’ve been seeing out-migration, and that wears on you. You hear about all your young people leaving,” he said.

“It’s really younger people that are coming back. That’s really positive, you know, and the immigration is creating a more diverse population. … So, you know, we’ve got some momentum in the region right now.”

New metropolises

Kelowna, in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, was the fastest-growing census metropolitan area in the country over the past five years. Its population increased by 14 per cent as it added more than 27,000 people.

Statscan says there are six more census metropolitan areas (CMAs) – the official term for a place with a population greater than 100,000 – in 2021 than there were five years earlier. Joining the list are the New Brunswick capital of Fredericton, Quebec’s Drummondville, the Alberta city of Red Deer and the B.C. cities of Kamloops, Chilliwack and Nanaimo.

Three of the new CMAs were also among the fastest-growing ones in the country. Kelowna, Chilliwack, Kamloops and Nanaimo all grew by at least 10 per cent, collectively adding about 60,000 people.

James Moore, Kelowna’s long-range policy planning manager, said a recent city growth plan assuming 45,000 additional people over the next 20 years may soon need to be revised.

“I think, over all, we’re well placed to accommodate that kind of growth,” he said. “The question for me is whether we need to project for more growth than that, and whether the pace we’ve seen over the past five years, which is much more rapid than normal, is something that’s sustained over the long term.”

There are now 41 CMAs across Canada. Collectively, they are home to nearly three-quarters of the country’s population. According to Statscan, these areas accounted for most of the country’s population increase from 2016 through 2021.

However, the growth was uneven. Calgary, which during this census period suffered the impact of a struggling oil patch, dropped out of the top five fastest-growing CMAs for the first time in a quarter-century. Its growth rate ranked 24th, immediately behind Winnipeg, but the city still managed to add about 90,000 people.

“Another sign of the acceleration of population growth among large urban centres: Actually none showed a population decrease in the last five years, and this is a first in six censuses,” said Laurent Martel, the Statistics Canada Centre for Demography director.

A more urban country

City downtowns added people in large numbers over the past five years, census 2021 data show, in spite of anemic population growth and in a few cases declines during the first part of the pandemic.

These downtowns grew faster in most cities than outlying regions – faster even than the farthest suburbs, which typically offer the cheapest real estate and the most living space in their metropolitan areas.

Taken as a whole, the population of the downtown areas of large urban centres grew 10.9 per cent from 2016 through 2021. That was more than twice the pace recorded over the previous census cycle. It also comfortably exceeded the latest census cycle’s overall city population growth rate of 6.1 per cent.

“We’re a country that’s becoming more and more urban,” Statscan’s Mr. MacNabb said. “The share of folks living in urban versus rural areas continues to grow.”

The trend toward city-centre living slowed when the pandemic hit. Some city downtowns experienced population declines from 2020 through 2021, including Montreal (down 3.1 per cent) and Vancouver (down 2.9 per cent), while Toronto eked out a gain of only 0.4 per cent.

However, the huge downtown growth in the first four years of the census period suggests city centres could boom again as immigration levels return to normal.

Significant growth from 2016 through 2020 left many city cores considerably more populous over the whole census cycle, even taking COVID-19 into account. Toronto’s downtown population was up 16.1 per cent over the five years, Montreal’s was up 24.2 per cent and Halifax led the country with 26.1-per-cent growth in its downtown.

At the same time, cities have continued to sprawl. The suburbs farthest from city cores grew at 8.8 per cent over the census period. The population of what Statscan calls the “urban fringe,” which is defined as everything within a 10-minute drive of a city core, grew by only 3.7 per cent, while the suburbs between the fringe and the most outlying areas grew by 5.8 per cent.

Canada leads the G7

Canada’s rate of population growth led the Group of Seven countries over the past five years, even though pandemic-related border controls slashed the number of immigrants – which the country relies on to keep growing – during part of that period.

In the broader Group of 20, Canada’s population growth rate ranked seventh, on par with India and behind countries such as Australia and South Africa.

However, Canada’s five-year growth figure of 5.2 per cent obscures a radical shift caused by the pandemic. While there was a record-high rate of growth from 2016 to 2019, population growth in 2020 was at a record low.

“We have to go back to [the] First World War – that’s about 100 years back in time – to find a population growth rate that was as low as the one we registered for 2020,” Statscan’s Mr. Martel said.

Still, even at that low level, the country led the other G7 countries over the year. According to Statscan, the United States managed only 0.1 per cent growth in 2020.

The precipitous drop from 2019, which saw a record population increase of about 583,000, underscored how reliant Canada is on immigration.

New arrivals accounted for four-fifths of the country’s population growth from 2016 through 2021. The rest was due to natural increase, meaning the amount by which births exceeded deaths. The rate of natural increase has been sliding for years. During this census cycle, it dropped to 0.1 per cent from 0.3 per cent.

That natural increase is the lowest on record, according to Statscan. However, the agency does not expect the rate to turn negative, as it has already in countries such as Italy and Japan, in the next 50 years. The decrease was attributed in the census materials to an aging population and declining fertility, which the agency says has also hit a record low, at 1.4 children for each woman in 2020.

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About the Author’s

Oliver Moore is a reporter for The Globe and Mail. Oliver joined The Globe’s newsroom in 2000 as a web editor and then moved into reporting. A native Torontonian, he served four years as Atlantic Bureau Chief and has worked also in Afghanistan, Grenada, France, Spain and the United States. In 2012, he was part of a team of Globe reporters nominated for a National Newspaper Award for coverage of a murder-suicide that rocked Alberta and Prince Edward Island.

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