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Canada Alberta sees influx of new residents as Canadians head west

Julie Barron, left, and Michael Zaugg, right, at home with their children Clara Barron, 4, second left, and Matilda Barron, 7, in Edmonton, Alberta on Tuesday, February 7, 2016.

Amber Bracken/The Globe and Mail

Drawn by jobs and pleased with the welcoming atmosphere, Canadians continue to migrate westward.

Census data released on Wednesday by Statistics Canada show that nearly one in three people call the Prairies or British Columbia home, with Alberta staking claim to the most new residents.

Despite a sluggish economy, Calgary and Edmonton were the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the country from 2011 to 2016, with growth rates of 14.6 and 13.9 per cent.

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Alberta as a whole added 421,918 residents since the last census was taken, an increase in 11.6 per cent. That is more than double the national average of 5 per cent.

When the census was taken on May 10 of last year, Calgary was the fourth-largest metropolitan area in the nation with a population of 1,392,609. Edmonton was sixth at 1,321,426.

The only place in the country where data was collected on a different date was Wood Buffalo, the sprawling regional municipality in northern Alberta that includes Fort McMurray. Figures for there are from May 1, two days before wildfires forced an evacuation of nearly 90,000 people.

"If they had used May 10 for us, our population would have been about 100 or 200 people," Melissa Blake, the Wood Buffalo mayor, said Wednesday.

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There are seemingly as many reasons as there are people for the shift from East to West. Taxes in Alberta remain the most friendly in the country, and the economy remains relatively stable despite a drop in world oil prices that slowed production in the oil sands.

But there is more to it than that.

Michael Zaugg and his wife, Julie Barron, moved from Montreal to Edmonton in 2014 when he accepted a position as conductor and artistic director of Pro Coro Canada, one of the premiere professional choirs in the country.

The couple met in Estonia in their early 20s when they were members of the World Youth Choir. Together for 18 years, they have found life to their liking in Alberta, where they live a short distance across the North Saskatchewan River from the provincial capital building.

"We feel life here as a family is much easier," Mr. Zaugg said between posing for pictures with his wife and their beaming daughters, Matilda, 7, and Clara, 4. "It is more affordable than Montreal, and people are really friendly.

"There is a thriving arts community in Edmonton, and a feeling that anything is possible. I feel there is a certain freedom and more of a possibility to succeed here."

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Mr. Zaugg was commuting between engagements in Montreal, Ottawa, and Edmonton before being chosen as Pro Coro's first conductor-in-residence over 26 other candidates from seven countries. He is originally from Switzerland.

"This was a chance for Michael to simplify his working life," Ms. Barron said.

She works as an executive recruiter in Edmonton. In Montreal, she served as a talent scout for Cirque du Soleil, helping cast singers, actors, and clowns.

"When we moved here from Montreal, we didn't know anyone," Ms. Barron said. "It was like walking off a cliff."

Visiting a mall in Edmonton for the first time, she was pleasantly surprised by how outgoing people were.

"Matilda asked me, 'Mom, why are all these people talking to us?' " Ms. Barron said.

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In December of 2015, Eddie Robar moved to Edmonton from Halifax with his wife and three daughters to accept a position as a city transit manager.

"It has been an awesome experience," Mr. Robar said. "I don't think we will ever leave."

Mr. Robar said he is unsurprised that Canadians keep streaming to the West. He said utility costs are significantly lower in Alberta than what he paid in Nova Scotia, and that he and his wife love the family atmosphere and opportunities for recreation.

"I don't think the benefits of living in Alberta are well-known across the country," he said. "I'm really waving the Western flag. I'm getting more people to move out here."

After nearly five years away, Jennifer Dupilka and her husband, Shaun, moved back to Fort McMurray from Sarnia, Ont., in 2015. Both work for an energy company in the oil sands. Shaun comes from a small town near Fort McMurray, while Jennifer is from northern British Columbia.

They had to evacuate during last May's fires, but don't regret returning to Fort McMurray.

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"It is home," Ms. Dupilka said. "We have strong ties."

The population of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, which has ranked among the fastest-growing places in the country for the last decade, was recorded in the federal census as 73,320. That is an increase of 9.6 per cent since 2011, but still below what officials say is accurate.

A municipal census conducted in 2015 that set the permanent population at 81,948, with an additional 43,084 people residing in work camps in the oil patch.

The federal figures do not account for that "shadow" population because most are from somewhere else, and they cannot be counted in the census twice. But those workers add to the stress that is being felt by the region's infrastructure, Mayor Blake said.

"I want to credit the census people for the extra effort they put in, and for changing the date for us to May 1," Ms. Blake said. "But we're no farther ahead on the curve than we were five years ago.

"My reaction is one of concern over the number not reflecting the overall population here."

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