Power and population are shifting to the Prairies and B.C. as Ontario enters a period of relative decline.
The results of the 2011 census released Wednesday confirm what many Canadians already instinctively understand. The country is re-orienting itself away from Central Canada and toward the Pacific. Oil, gas, potash and other resources are drawing migrants and the region's political and economic influence is growing as a result.
Alberta and Saskatchewan are booming as both immigrants and native-born Canadians flock to the oil fields and resource industries.
Ontario, long the central engine of growth, was the only province in the country to see its rate of growth drop since 2006. It's also the first time in 25 years that Ontario slipped below the symbolic threshold of the national growth rate.
Overall the Canadian population increased by 5.9 per cent since the last census to 33.5 million, a slight increase from the 5.4 per cent growth between 2001 and 2006.
Canada is the fastest growing country in the Group of 8 industrialized nations, thanks largely to its immigration program, which accounts for about two-thirds of the increase in population.
But the end is near for that kind of fast growth. The report estimates that population growth could, within 20 years, be close to zero – unless there is a sustained level of immigration or a substantial increase in fertility.
Alberta, in many ways the centre of the Canadian economy today, leads the country in population growth at nearly double the national average. Its two big cities, Edmonton and Calgary, were the two-fastest growing cities in the country. A significant portion of its population increase came from interprovincial migration, as it has traditionally. Alberta also saw a significant increase in immigration from abroad.
Saskatchewan's turnaround has been stunning. From 1996 to 2006 the province lost more than 1 per cent of its population, an indictment that saw young people leaving for opportunities elsewhere. But as the price of commodities rose over the last five years Saskatchewan grew by 6.7 per cent to pass the 1 million mark, as it did once before in 1986. More than a quarter of that growth was due to Canadians re-locating to Saskatchewan from other provinces.
Manitoba doubled its rate of growth since the last census, to 5.9 per cent. Much of that was due to a doubling of immigration under the provincial nominee program.
When combined with strong, immigration driven-growth in British Columbia, the Western provinces for the first time have a greater share of the Canadian population than the sum of Quebec and Atlantic Canada.
The decline of manufacturing in Ontario, which cost the province more than 300,000 jobs over the last decade, was a major contributor to tens of thousands of Ontarians leaving the province for greener pastures, twice as many as between 2001 and 2006. Ontario also welcomed about 100,000 fewer immigrants over the last five years than it did in the first half of the decade. While it's still growing at a healthy rate, it's not growing the way it used to.
"What is significant is that all other provinces had higher rates of population growth," said Laurent Martel, senior demographer at Statistics Canada. "It's not a huge decrease but it's the only province showing that kind of trend."
Quebec saw its share of the Canadian population dip a little further, as it has for several years. It's now down to 23.6 per cent, from 29 per cent in 1951. All four Atlantic provinces showed higher growth rates than in 2006, but all were still below the national average.
Newfoundland grew for the first time in 25 years, as fewer people moved away.
Wednesday's data marks the first of four releases from the 2011 mandatory short form census and the information is limited to data on population and dwellings.
Part of the census data released Wednesday looks at population growth from 1851 to 2061 and it underscores many of the demographic trends that are currently at the heart of political debate.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper is provoking heated debate across the country with two major policy announcements in recent months. The first is his decision to curb the rate of growth in provincial health transfers over time so that they grow in line with the economy. The second was his decision to open up a debate about raising the eligibility age for Old Age Security, arguing the shrinking ratio of workers to retirees will not be able to support the current age of 65 as an increasing number of baby boomers qualify for the federal program.
The numbers show the aging of Canada's population will be most pronounced during this decade and the next.
"The aging of the population will accelerate between 2011 and 2031 as baby boomers reach the age of 65," states the census report. "In 2026, the first of the baby boomers will reach the age of 80, an age when mortality is high. As a result, the number of deaths will increase significantly."
Statistics Canada projects that the number of births and deaths will be nearly the same in Canada from about 2030 to 2060, meaning any population growth will rely almost entirely on immigration.
On May 29, Statistics Canada will release the second of its four census reports. It will break down the census information based on age and sex. Then data on families, households, marital status, and other dwelling information will come out on Sept. 19, followed by a final report on Oct. 24 dealing with language.
Information in these reports are not affected by last year's controversy over the long-form census. The Conservative government decided to replace the mandatory long-form census and its more detailed questions with a voluntary household survey. The change prompted the resignation of the head of Statistics Canada amid concern about the reliability of a voluntary survey and the compatibility of the results with previous research.
Census 2011 interactives: Explore the numbers