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A view of downtown Calgary. (Chris Bolin For The Globe and Mail/Chris Bolin For The Globe and Mail)
A view of downtown Calgary. (Chris Bolin For The Globe and Mail/Chris Bolin For The Globe and Mail)

Ontario cedes centre stage to a thriving West, census shows Add to ...

From Manitoba to the Pacific, the 2011 census shows a confident West assuming the mantle of leadership. Alberta tops the country in population growth. British Columbia is right behind. Saskatchewan has reversed a decade of population decline with impressive gains. And Manitoba is growing twice as quickly as it was before.

Ontario, still the largest partner in the federation, has ceded centre stage. Its rate of growth dropped below the national average for the first time in 25 years. It lost 57,000 people to other provinces and received nearly 100,000 fewer immigrants than in the previous census period. It’s also home to the only two cities that shrank, beleaguered Windsor and Thunder Bay. The long-term decline of the manufacturing sector is taking a toll.

The census results confirm what many Canadians already instinctively understand. The country is reorienting itself toward the Pacific. Oil, gas, potash and other resources are drawing newcomers. The region’s political and economic influence is growing as a result.

Overall, the Canadian population increased by 5.9 per cent since the previous census to 33.5 million, a slight increase from the 5.4 per cent growth between 2001 and 2006.

For the first time, the population of the four Western provinces exceeds that of the four Atlantic provinces plus Quebec. Continuing a long-term trend, Quebec’s share of the Canadian population shrank to 23.6 per cent, emphasizing its diminishing influence in the federation. Newfoundland, meanwhile, reversed a 25-year trend by keeping more people at home in 2011.

At the moment, immigration accounts for about two-thirds of Canada’s population gains, while the other third is due to natural increase. Another aspect of the West’s momentum is that the Prairie provinces have the highest fertility rates in the country. Manitoba and Saskatchewan are close to two births per woman, and Alberta is at 1.9, all much higher than the national average of 1.67. As University of Western Ontario demographer Rod Beaujot put it, births are where the jobs are.

All of Ontario’s cities grew more slowly in this census period, with the exception of Toronto, Ottawa, Kingston and Brantford. Meanwhile, the three fastest growing cities in the country are all in the West: Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon.

In Edmonton, that rapid growth has meant urban sprawl and pressure on infrastructure.

Young families flock to the city’s multiplying subdivisions, leaving officials scrambling to deliver schools, emergency services and transit. Suburban schools are filled beyond capacity as soon as they open, while inner-city schools are threatened with closing due to low enrolment.

The growth problem extends beyond the suburbs to surrounding towns – the Edmonton region’s growth rate of 12.1 per cent outpaced the city’s rate of 11.2. The hottest community in the surrounding area is Beaumont, a once-quiet outpost with a strong francophone community. Its population has spiked 48 per cent since 2006, reaching 13,284.

Keith and Andria Despins were looking for a fresh start when Mr. Despins’s job at a pulp mill in Manitoba was in doubt. They considered Edmonton. House prices seemed high, but Beaumont, 20 minutes south, had it all: a small-town feel, French immersion, affordable housing and a booming economy.

They moved in 2007 with their two young sons, and Mr. Despins now works in the nearby oilfields.

“We ended up checking it out, and we loved it,” Ms. Despins says. “It’s definitely changed a lot since we’ve moved here, but it’s great. There’s always new families moving into the community, so there’s always new people to meet, and there’s so many young kids. The town is geared to young kids.”

Canada’s swelling suburbs have made it the fastest-growing country in the Group of Eight industrialized nations. But the era of rapid expansion will soon end, according to Statistics Canada projections. The tip of the baby boom cohort is hitting 65 this year. For the next 20 years, Canada will age steadily along with the boomers. From 2030 to 2060, the number of deaths will likely approach the number of births. At that point, nearly all population increases will be due to immigration.

The big difference for Ontario over the past five years has been the growth of the provincial nominee program, which it was among the last to join. The program directed tens of thousands of immigrants to other provinces while Ontario’s share of immigration declined to about 40 per cent from nearly 60 per cent. Manitoba, which was the first to adopt the PNP, doubled its share of immigration. Saskatchewan nearly tripled its total, according to numbers from Citizenship and Immigration.

The West’s growth is a matter of simple economics, said Rob Roach, vice-president of the Canada West Foundation. He cited the case of Saskatchewan, which shrank between 1996 and 2006 before posting strong population growth in 2011 due to higher interprovincial and international migration.

“It’s the same geography, same weather. The only factor that’s changed is the economy,” Mr. Roach said.

Atlantic Canada, where the population is oldest, had small population gains because of immigration. Prince Edward Island’s immigration numbers, although still small, increased by seven times, according to data gathered by Citizenship and Immigration. New Brunswick’s immigration doubled, and Nova Scotia increased its total by nearly 50 per cent, although how many stayed in each jurisdiction won’t be clear until more census data are released later this year.

The first release, on population and dwellings, is based on information gathered from the mandatory short-form census. It is not affected by the government’s controversial decision to replace the long-form census with the voluntary National Household Survey.

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