Canada’s new urban reality

By Casey Vander Ploeg on May 1, 2008

There are many issues dominating Ottawa's agenda—the Afghan mission, a new crime bill, climate change, proposals to beef up Canada's sovereignty in the Arctic, and new limits on the federal spending power. But as the nation's leaders grope their way through this maze, they should not lose sight of Canada's larger urban agenda.

Ottawa's own "bean-counter"—Statistics Canada—continues to point out that the nation is inexorably marching toward a highly urbanized future. No surprise there. But less familiar is how this urbanizing trend centers around the country's big  city-regions.

Between the 2001 and 2006 census, Canada's 33 largest "census metropolitan areas" (CMAs for short) grew by almost 1.4 million people. Canada's population, as a whole, grew by 1.6 million over the same timeframe. In other words, Canada's big city-regions represented almost 90% of all population growth. It is becoming even more evident that Canada's demographic future - and hence its economic future - is becoming ever more closely intertwined with our big cities.

The demographic muscle Canada's city-regions are flexing is not a recent phenomenon, but it is becoming a powerful long-term trend. Since 1961, Canada's 33 largest city-regions have grown at a pace five times that of all other urban and rural areas. This trend should be of more than a passing interest to the nation's leaders.

When the Canada West Foundation prepared its most recent study—Big Cities and the Census—researchers refined the official census data to accurately track the growth of Canada's big city-regions from 1961 to 2006. The resulting study is a first in Canada, providing definitive long-term comparisons.

What did we uncover?

No other region of the country has experienced the effects of rapid urbanization more than western Canada, where the demographic landscape has been dramatically and permanently altered. Five decades ago, the West was far less urban than the rest of the country. Not so today.

The West is home to Canada's most dynamic big cities. Between 1961 and 2006, Kelowna and Abbotsford emerge as the fastest growing cities among those with a current population of less than 250,000. Kelowna grew by 491% and Abbotsford grew by 446%.

Among cities exceeding 500,000 in population, three of the top five fastest growing are western cities. This includes Calgary (273%), Edmonton (164%) and Vancouver (156%).

Of the West's nine big city-regions, seven emerge within the top five for growth in their respective size category. What is more, this is not just about British Columbia and Alberta, even though they are the most urbanized provinces in the West with the fastest growing cities.

Consider Saskatchewan. Between 1961 and 2006, Saskatchewan grew by 43,000 people. Yet, the combined population of the Regina and Saskatoon city-regions grew by over 200,000. Saskatchewan's demographic and economic future now lies in its big cities.

No other province is so singularly dominated by one city than Manitoba. Almost two-thirds of Manitobans live in Winnipeg, and the city-region itself accounts for almost 90% of Manitoba's entire population growth over the last 45 years.

Ontario and Quebec have traditionally served as Canada's urban heartland. Between 1961 and 2006, big city-regions represented 92% of all population growth in Ontario and 80% in Quebec.

The ability of Atlantic Canada to reverse decades of slow and even declining provincial populations now rests entirely in the region's handful of large cities. Between 2001 and 2006, the region lost about 1,000 residents. But the cities of Halifax, St. John, Moncton, St. John's and Charlottetown grew by more than 30,000 people. Like Saskatchewan, Atlantic Canada is now completely dependent on big cities for future population growth. All urban and rural areas outside of the big cities, when combined, are steadily losing people.

Traditionally, Canada's urban axis has spun around the trio of Toronto, Montreal, and Ottawa. This is no longer the case. Vancouver has emerged as one of the most dynamic cities in Canada with a rapidly growing population and an enviable international reputation of its own. No other cities even come close to matching the astounding rates of growth seen in Calgary, Edmonton, Kelowna, and Abbotsford. No one city dominates its province as Winnipeg does Manitoba. And in Saskatchewan and each Atlantic province, provincial population growth is entirely centred around the big cities.

Canada has always preoccupied itself with finding that one common thread or experience that can be said to unite Canadians. First it was the Canadian Pacific Railway. Then it was the CBC. Today some would say it is universal and publicly-funded healthcare. Perhaps it should be our city-regions?

At the very least, Canadians      and their governments need to pay more attention to the future of our large cities - they are critical to our future demographic and economic success.


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