Skip to main content

Alberta is a microcosm for the demographic trends that are reshaping the country.

Canada’s population is now growing by more than 400,000 people every three months, which translates into the fastest rate of population growth since John Diefenbaker became prime minister in 1957.

The most federal government-resistant of the provinces has the fastest-growing population in the country, in large part as a result of Ottawa’s policies. Alberta’s population will hit five million people about a year from now if the current rate of growth – well above 4 per cent – continues.

The combination of a strong resource economy and affordable housing – the latter by our messed-up Canadian standards, at least – is bringing people to the province.

Interprovincial migration drives some of this. The now-defunct Alberta is Calling campaign might have played a role. Truck rental company U-Haul said this week that Calgary is the destination for the highest number of one-way customer moves in the country. But over all, the growth is mostly international migrants coming to the province, particularly the two largest cities. This includes Ukrainians fleeing the deadly Russian invasion, students and temporary foreign workers, and a small but increasing number of asylum seekers, as well.

Danielle Smith appears to have no concerns about welcoming everyone. The Alberta Premier wants the activity, business and tax revenues new people bring. And despite increasing housing prices, she’s confident her province will continue to have a better housing affordability story than Toronto or Vancouver.

But she’s not going to focus just on the big cities. “Our strategy is let’s invite people to Alberta and tell them that they can live anywhere,” Ms. Smith said in an interview with The Globe and Mail last month.

Despite the fact that most new arrivals prefer Edmonton or Calgary, Ms. Smith wants new Albertans to consider Camrose, Medicine Hat or Red Deer; she envisions the latter city becoming a mid-sized hub in an urbanized belt stretching between Edmonton and Calgary. Alberta’s Throne Speech last fall laid out a province of 10 million people by 2050, a number that is not backed up by official estimates, and would require the population to double once again, post-2025. It’s a highly speculative prediction given the notorious ups and downs of the province.

But that’s not stopping Ms. Smith, who also wants to see the two big cities linked by high-speed rail – an expensive, long-held dream for the province that has refused to die.

It would open up the entire Red Deer region for more housing development, she said. (It might sound outlandish now, but who would have expected, for instance, the rapid growth of commuter cities such as Barrie, Ont., a few decades back?)

Of course, there should be attention paid to shorter-term concerns – the first being the people living in tent encampments, or those thrown out of them, as the coldest days of the winter hit. The issue of housing people will be one of the overarching questions for Canada in the 2020s.

Alberta Finance Minister Nate Horner said the provincial and territorial ministers’ conversation with federal Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland last month started, unsurprisingly, with many provinces and territories calling on Ottawa to enact carbon pricing reform (or, in his words, “just to get rid of the thing and start over with something else”).

But the meeting was also filled with concern about housing and managing population growth. “If we’re going to welcome this many people to Canada, we’re going to need some help to build the infrastructure required,” Mr. Horner said.

The provinces will need more help with regional projects, he added, including major roads, waste-water facilities and massive amounts of new housing.

He’s also worried the country’s population surge is “papering over” weak economic growth, and a lack of actual investment in the country. Economists have raised this issue as well.

The federal government has boosted the number of permanent immigrants, a policy largely supported by Canadians. The country needs new people, and new workers.

But as is being increasingly pointed out, Ottawa has allowed policy on non-permanent residents to proceed with little in the way of checks. It’s a position that will have to change in the months ahead for the country’s stability and in the interests of future immigrants. It will also have to shift to ensure the federal Liberals’ political survival as voters increasingly link housing costs to a system for international students and temporary foreign workers that has run amok.

Alberta, and every other province and territory, are now grappling with the effects – good and bad.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe