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First Data from the 2016 Census

by Dr. Doug Norris | Feb 08, 2017

Large urban areas grow but smaller urban and rural areas see declines

This morning Statistics Canada released the first data from the 2016 Census, covering the total population in Canada and dwelling counts for all geographic areas of the country. After briefly reviewing the findings, we offer some insights into what the data mean for marketers.

The results show that Canada has a census population of 35,151,728, up 1.7 million from 2011. This represents a growth of 5.0 percent, which is below the 5.9 percent growth rate of the preceding census period (2006-2011). About two-thirds of total growth can be attributed to immigration. Canada continues to be the fastest growing country among G-8 nations.

The five-year population growth was highest in Alberta (11.6 percent), followed by Saskatchewan (6.3 percent), Manitoba (5.8 percent) and British Columbia (5.6 percent). But growth rates in other major areas came in below the national figure, with Ontario at 4.6 percent and Quebec at 3.3 percent. They were even lower in all four Atlantic provinces; New Brunswick actually showed a small decline in total population. In the North, however, Nunavut saw high growth at 12.7 percent.

Overall, population growth was concentrated in large urban areas. The largest urban areas (CMAs or census metropolitan areas) grew by 6.2 percent, medium-sized urban areas (CAs or census agglomerations) increased by 3.3 percent and rural areas grew by 1.1 percent. In fact, the six largest CMAs with over 1 million people—which together constitute 44 percent of Canada’s population—accounted for 64 percent of the growth over the 2011-2016 period.

Among the 35 CMAs with populations of at least 100,000, Calgary (14.6 percent), Edmonton (13.9 percent), Saskatoon (12.5 percent), Regina (11.8 percent) and Lethbridge (10.8 percent) had the highest growth rates. Although growth rates in these areas declined during the past two years, the earlier high growth was enough to maintain their high rates for the five-year period. The largest CMAs grew at more moderate rates: Toronto (6.2 percent), Vancouver (6.5 percent) and Montreal (4.2 percent). And one CMA, St. John, New Brunswick, declined in population over the period 2011-2016.

Among the 117 medium-sized urban areas (CAs) with populations between 10,000 and 100,000, the fastest growing was Sylvan Lake in Alberta (19.6 percent). In fact, eight of the ten fastest growing were in the west, including four in Alberta (Sylvan Lake, Okotoks, Canmore, and Grande Prairie), two in Manitoba (Steinbach and Winkler), one in British Columbia (Squamish) and Lloydminster that straddles the Alberta-Saskatchewan border. The remaining two fastest growing were in Ontario (Wasaga Beach and Collingwood); all experienced rates above 12 percent. At the other extreme, 32 of the 117 CAs experienced population declines.

As in the past, Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver metropolitan areas experienced higher growth in their suburban areas than in their central cities: Toronto suburbs saw 7.7 percent growth while the city saw 4.5 percent growth; Montreal suburbs grew 5.3 percent while the Island of Montreal grew 2.9 percent; and in Vancouver, the suburbs grew 7.1 percent while the city grew 4.6 percent. Noteworthy, however, is the fact that compared to the 2006-2011 census, growth rates in the central cities actually increased slightly in Montreal and Vancouver and remained constant in Toronto. In comparison, growth rates in suburban areas declined during 2011-2016 compared to the earlier 2006-2011 period for all three metropolitan areas.

Within the cities of Toronto and Vancouver, growth was higher in the downtown core compared to the rest of the city. The downtown area in Toronto grew by 21 percent compared to the overall city growth of 4.5 percent; in Vancouver the downtown growth was 10 percent compared to 4.6 percent for the city as a whole. But downtown Montreal grew at the same rate as the city (3 percent).

In 2016, 16.8 percent of Canada’s population lived in rural areas.  This was down from 18.8 percent in 2011. Although the rural areas as an aggregate grew at 1.1 percent, growth rates varied widely. Of the 1,325 non-reserve rural Census Subdivisions (CSDs) with populations of at least 1,000, 89 increased by more than 10 percent while 625 declined in population. And most of the fast-growing rural areas were on the fringes of large urban areas or in resource-based communities.  Declining rural areas were reported in all provinces.

The Marketer’s Viewpoint

In general, the big picture of growth in Canada is fairly similar to what we have seen over the past decade. The large urban markets continue to grow, and we can expect population increases to continue to be higher in Western Canada. And though the extent of growth in Alberta will clearly depend on the oil and gas industry, the young Alberta population provides a built-in momentum for growth, with immigrants continuing to be attracted to Alberta. All this suggests that Alberta is likely to continue to lead the provinces in growth, and marketers still have many opportunities to create new customer connections with young families.

Immigration in the coming years can be expected to be higher than in the past, and many areas of the country that have not been traditional immigrant destinations will be looking to attract and retain immigrants. This will provide marketers with opportunities to create new relationships with first-mover advantages. 

Within the large urban markets, as more residents are drawn to central cities, we expect to see the increasing popularity of tech-enabled services such as online grocery stores and transportation alternatives like Uber, car-sharing and bicycle-sharing. With growth in suburbs growing at a slower rate, in part due to an aging population, it becomes more important to be able to identify smaller niche markets. Indeed, more retirees in these suburban and exurban areas suggest opportunities for businesses offering travel, leisure and financial services.

Although most markets will continue to experience growth, an increasing part of rural and small urban Canada will need to plan for population declines and an aging population. Businesses will need to adjust their product offerings, and governments may face challenges in maintaining emergency services, health care and social services like libraries and schools. Can technology address these challenges through online doctor visits, streaming story time presentations at libraries, and blended classroom and online education at the grade school level? This initial wave of census data raises intriguing questions, as will the upcoming releases no doubt.

A more detailed analysis of the first census results, including a look at change region by region, will be presented in a webinar scheduled for 2:00 p.m. EDT on Thursday, February 16. You may register here.

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Doug Norris, Ph.D., is a Senior Vice President and Chief Demographer at Environics Analytics.