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How census figures cement Harper's grip on power

The 2011 census confirms what the ballot box has already told us: Aspiring Canada votes Conservative.

If the NDP or Liberals are ever to win government, they must break the bond between these aspirational voters and Stephen Harper.

The latest tranche of data released Tuesday morning by Statistics Canada paints a picture of a country that is about to get old. The population of seniors is growing; for the first time, those who are getting ready to leave the labour force (age 55 to 64) exceed those getting ready to enter it (aged 15 to 24).

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But the country is not aging uniformly. Younger, working-age Canadians are moving West, to where the jobs are. And within the big cities, the downtowns are aging differently than the suburbs.

The Conservatives are the party of the West and the party of suburbs. That is why Stephen Harper is Prime Minister.

Once again, the census paints a picture of three Canadas. The proportion of the population over 65 is higher than the national average in Quebec and in Atlantic Canada. Ontario is about average. The West, except for the retirement Mecca of British Columbia, is younger than average.

Generally, an older society is a poorer society, because seniors consume more from government than they contribute through taxes, and because the economy is unable to provide the jobs needed to keep young people from leaving town in search of work.

These consuming provinces east of the Ottawa River predominantly vote NDP or Liberal. The contributing provinces of Western Canada, where a booming resource centre acts as a job magnet, vote Conservative.

But it's much more than a story of East versus West. Even more, it's a story of downtowns versus suburbs. As the census observes: "Differences in age structure between central and peripheral areas are particularly striking" in Canada's largest cities.

In the suburban communities surrounding Toronto, the percentage of families with young children is well above the national average. The percentage of older Canadians is below average. These edge cities – Brampton, Mississauga, Vaughan, Markham, Ajax and Pickering, Oshawa –are largely middle-class. They have large populations of working parents. They pay more in federal taxes than they consume in federal services. Many of them are immigrants who have done well. In the last federal election, almost every riding in this suburban belt went Conservative.

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In Toronto itself, the number of both seniors and families with children is both below the national average. The city has a large population of singles and DINKs, (double-income-no-kids). Many of these voters are well-educated professionals who work the financial, educational and cultural industries. And the ridings of downtown Toronto are Liberal or NDP.

Both the demographics and the political results are mirrored in Vancouver, (though the population of retirees is higher there, thanks to the weather).

Local cultures, of course, influence results. In Montreal, the Liberals did well in English enclaves; in Calgary the Conservatives prevailed in every postal code; parts of rural English Canada, though older and poorer than the national average, voted Conservative for cultural reasons.

But where it counts, in the populous communities outside the downtowns of cities in English Canada, suburban middle-class voters who seek a better life both for themselves and for their children vote for the party that they believe will look after the economy, protect their jobs and keep their taxes low.

In the next election, these suburban cities will receive the lion's share of the 30 new seats being added to the House of Commons. Those seats will go Conservative, too, unless the Liberals or the NDP can think of a way to make aspirational Canadians change their minds.

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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