OTTAWA — Canada's population of 33.5 million people is growing faster than that of any other G8 nation — fuelled primarily by immigration — while the booming West continues to reshape this country's demographic landscape, a new census has revealed.
The latest national head-count, released Wednesday by Statistics Canada, shows strong and steady growth in nearly every corner of a country that remains firmly in the grip of a westward shift in population power — one that will see growing political and economic influence from Western Canada, observers say.
Up from 31.6 million at the time of the previous census in 2006, the Canadian population remains the smallest among the G8 but by far the fastest-growing, with a 5.9 per cent growth rate in the past five years that not only exceeds the 4.4 per cent rise in the U.S., but also Canada's own previous increase of 5.4 per cent between 2001 and 2006.
Sustaining the growth spurt is Canada's open-arms approach to immigration, a phenomenon that has become twice as important as natural increase — the difference between births and deaths — in driving the country's population upward.
Initial results of the 2011 census — conducted last year under a cloud of controversy after the Conservative government's elimination of the mandatory long-form questionnaire — show Alberta again leading all provinces in population growth (10.8 per cent since the last census in 2006) and its two largest cities, Calgary and Edmonton, outpacing the country's 31 other metropolitan areas with soaring increases of more than 12 per cent in the number of residents over the past five years.
The first batch of data from last year's census is peppered with indicators of the West's growing importance, a trend that was also evident in the 2006 population tally.
For the first time in Canadian history, the proportion of the population living west of Ontario (30.7 per cent) is greater than the number of people living to the east (30.6 per cent). The population shift has already had political implications; the West's growth was recognized in an electoral reform package recently approved by Parliament that will boost the number of MPs from Alberta and B.C. by six each, along with 15 new members from Ontario and three from Quebec.
This symbolic east-to-west shift has been more a gradual one than a sea change between now and the last census, says Michael Holden, a senior economist with the Canada West Foundation. "30.7 per cent of Canadians live in Western Canada now. Fifty years ago, it was 26.4 per cent," he noted.
Nevertheless, "on the political side we've already seen for the first time ever, really, a majority government that was brought into power on the strength of its performance in Ontario and Western Canada, as opposed to the sort of traditional Ontario-Quebec political coalition," Holden said.
The Conservative government's base is strongest in Alberta and elsewhere in Western Canada, he said. As those parts of the country grow "it's more likely that we'll see increasing western influence in decision-making in Ottawa," he said.
That could present challenges in forming a national forward-looking policy, "which for the first time ever has to have a more significant western Canadian component because this region accounts for about 40 per cent of national economic output now, and it's growing quickly."
The census also shows clearly that Saskatchewan has emerged as a full partner with Alberta in the oil-and-gas-fuelled economic boom that's attracting both immigrants from abroad and migrants from other parts of Canada.
"When we observe the high immigration, and a lot of internal migration, people will tend to go where they can find work," said Marc Hamel, director general of Statistics Canada's census program.
For the first time since the 1986 census, when the number of Saskatchewan residents briefly topped one million, the province's once-declining numbers — a net decrease of 1.1 per cent was registered between 1996 and 2006 — have been emphatically reversed in the past five years and the population lifted to 1,033,381.
Another sign of Saskatchewan's population boom, powered by its above-average growth rate of 6.7 per cent, is the spiking number of people moving to the province's principal cities, Regina and Saskatoon, both seeing population increases of around 10 per cent since 2006.
It's clear, said University of Victoria census historian Peter Baskerville, that "the economy is shifting to Saskatchewan and Alberta in terms of resources, and manufacturing is declining in the central belt of Ontario and Quebec — that's been going on for a lot of years."
But even in parts of the country that couldn't quite match the pace of growth witnessed in the Prairies, there were substantial increases in population, the census data shows.
British Columbia's share of Canada's population reached a new high of 13.1 per cent, with the province's total residents up seven per cent to 4.4 million. Kelowna, which grew by 10.8 per cent since 2006, was the country's fourth-fastest-growing city after Calgary, Edmonton and Saskatoon.
Ontario, despite being hit hard by the recession of 2008-09 and facing painful adjustments in the manufacturing sector — most notably the auto industry — increased its population to 12.9 million and its overall share of the country's population to a highest-ever 38.4 per cent.
Two Ontario cities facing particularly hard economic times — Windsor and Thunder Bay — did experience population decreases, a rarity among Canada's urban centres during a generally widespread period of growth, especially in major metropolitan areas.
And Quebec, while seeing its share of Canada's population dip slightly to 23.6 per cent, actually accelerated its growth rate from 4.3 per cent in 2006 to 4.7 per cent in the latest census period. The province, which now has more than 7.9 million people, is also on pace to reach the eight-million milestone in the coming months.
Meanwhile, the same magnetic attraction that oil wealth appears to be having in Western Canada seems to be boosting the number of people moving to — and staying in — petroleum-rich Newfoundland and Labrador. Canada's easternmost province, which had not recorded a period of population growth since 1986, notched its numbers up by 1.8 per cent to 514,536 people.
Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island all had higher rates of population growth in the 2011 census than in the 2006 count.
Manitoba and the Yukon also experienced significant jumps in their growth rates because of influxes of immigrants.
Even though there's been a slight increase in the number of Canadians classified as living in rural areas — agricultural districts, small towns beyond the orbit of larger centres and most of the northern territories — the much faster growth of cities has pushed the proportion of rural Canadians to a historic low of 18.9 per cent.
In contrast, more than one-third of all Canadians — 35 per cent of the population — now live in one of the country's three largest cities: Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. Each of those centres grew substantially over the past five years, the gains — once again — driven by the arrival of tens of thousands of immigrants.
As the single most important factor affecting the size of Canada's citizenry, the ongoing influx of newcomers to the country offers the promise of economic renewal and multicultural evolution but also presents major challenges in integrating and accommodating immigrant communities.
"I think Canadians are still quite supportive of immigration," said Jack Jedwab, executive director of the Montreal-based Association for Canadian Studies. "I think they understand — and this (census) will only reconfirm their understanding — that Canada needs immigration."
But Jedwab, whose research in recent years has illuminated significant levels of concern among Canadians about immigration from Muslim nations, said, "the issue is going to be the sources of immigration, what countries people are coming from. That's still going to be a source of concern in terms of issues of accommodation in Quebec, and integration, and we'll continue to have debates about that."