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Canada became more urban in 2019 as its census metropolitan areas or CMAs grew by close to triple the rate as the rest of the country, with temporary and permanent immigrants accounting for nearly all of the 463,000 people who joined the largest cities.

The CMAs grew 1.7 per cent over the 12-month period ending mid-2019, versus 0.6-per-cent growth for the non-CMA population, according to estimates published Thursday by Statistics Canada. Ontario was home to the fastest-growing CMAs, paced by Kitchener-Cambridge-Waterloo (2.8 per cent), London (2.3 per cent) and the Ontario part of Ottawa-Gatineau (2.3 per cent).

But the country’s largest CMAs – Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver – continue to see a net loss of people within their respective provinces, raising concerns about deteriorating affordability in Canada’s major centres, along with escalating suburban sprawl.

“I can summarize [the trend] in one phrase: Drive until you qualify,” said Mike Moffatt, an economist at the University of Western Ontario’s Ivey Business School who has written extensively on population changes in his home province. “Young families are looking for housing, and they’re going as far afield as they need to in order to afford that.”

Population change is composed of several elements, including the natural change (births minus deaths), temporary and permanent immigration, and the flow of people between provinces (interprovincial) and within them (intraprovincial).

Canada has long relied on immigration to drive population gains, particularly of late, as the country undergoes a record-setting run of increases. In each of the Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver areas, net international migration was the primary driver of population gains in the most recent year. Take out immigration, and each of those CMAs’ populations would be decreasing.

Within major CMAs, Statscan noted the continuation of “urban spread” as people moved to suburban fringes. It cited the municipalities of East Gwillimbury (9.5 per cent) and Milton (5 per cent) as having the largest growth rates within the Toronto area, while Carignan (4.6 per cent) and Mirabel (4.1 per cent) saw the largest within the Montreal area.

But many are opting to leave Canada’s largest cities entirely. Over the most recent year, nearly 48,000 more people left the Toronto area for other parts of Ontario than made the opposite move. Both Vancouver and Montreal saw net intraprovincial losses of roughly 14,000. While outflows are typical for these areas, they have picked up in recent years.

For Toronto, the acceleration is being driven not by the city, but some of its suburbs, and particularly Peel Region, home to Mississauga and Brampton. Those cities, once havens of affordability for those with jobs in Toronto, have seen their home prices skyrocket in recent years, and seven-figure detached homes are not uncommon.

As a result, parts of Southern Ontario – Kitchener-Waterloo, London and the Niagara region – are seeing notable upticks in people moving there from elsewhere in the province.

Cindy Williamson, a St. Catharines, Ont.,-based real estate agent, said 20 per cent of her business in 2019 came from buyers outside the Niagara region.

“You still really get good value for your money here,” she said.

Prof. Moffatt at Ivey cautioned that Toronto increasingly resembles London, England, ahead of Brexit, which “was a magnet for all these very talented international migrants, which was on net, probably a good thing for the city,” he said. “But it priced out a lot of families who had to move further afield, and who weren’t often happy about getting priced out of the city.”

Many still wind up driving into Toronto for work. Over the past decade, the Toronto region accounted for about 66 per cent of jobs created by Ontario’s CMAs, or higher than its share of the population, according to a report by the province’s fiscal watchdog, which cited uneven hiring as one of “several ongoing challenges” in the labour market.

The report used Labour Force Survey data that measures employment based on where people live, rather than where they work. Thus, some of Ontario’s top markets for job growth – such as Barrie, Hamilton and Oshawa – likely include people who commute into Toronto for work, said Bank of Montreal senior economist Robert Kavcic.

“You see a lot of strength in [Toronto’s] perimeter cities,” Mr. Kavcic told The Globe and Mail last month.

Prof. Moffatt raised additional concerns about a growing commuter class. “You’ve got all these people living in London, Woodstock and Kitchener, and commuting to Toronto every day,” he said. “That has a large environmental footprint.”

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