Alberta is experiencing a population boom after years of slow growth, but whether that boom will translate into expansion in rural areas remains to be seen.
From July 1, 2022, to July 1, 2023, Alberta experienced the fastest demographic growth of all provinces and territories at four per cent, according to estimates released by Statistics Canada on Sept. 28 for a total population of 4,695,290 in quarter three.
Country-wide, Canada experienced a massive surge in population with a 12-month growth rate of 3.3 per cent — the highest since 1957.
Kevin McQuillan, an expert in demography at the University of Calgary, called the Alberta population estimates striking.
“What's most striking to me is how volatile it is in Alberta. We've gone through this here quite a few times when we see these great surges of migration into the provinces we're seeing right now,” he said.
Alberta’s net interprovincial migration estimates for this year were 56,245 which was the “highest annual net interprovincial gain for Alberta as well as the highest annual net interprovincial gain recorded for a single province or territory since comparable data are available for the years 1971/1972.”
A total of 106,148 people had moved into the province while 49,903 people moved out.
Last year, the net number of interprovincial migrants was 5,646 and years prior saw more people leaving the province with negative net interprovincial migrant numbers.
“(This surge) follows a period, for the last five years previously, in which we were seeing the opposite. We were seeing an outflow of people and there were several articles written about losing young people to other provinces,” he said.
The highest number of people who came to Alberta were from Ontario, at 37,379. There were 36,931 people who left B.C. for Alberta while 10,254 people left Saskatchewan for their neighboring province. The least amount of people who came to Alberta in 2022/2023 were from Nunavut at 251 migrants.
When McQuillan looked at the 2021 census numbers he said there weren’t many migrants in towns and villages across the province.
“It's usually around 5 per cent of the population that are interprovincial migrants, so not very many,” he said.
McQuillan thinks it’s difficult for smaller communities to attract migrants “unless there's something really quite distinctive going on.”
In years past, migrants came to areas where big developments occurred in the energy industry such as the oil sands up north.
“Even today, I think if you look at sort of that Fort McMurray region, you see a larger share of people who come from other provinces,” he said.
What hasn’t been seen much in rural Alberta yet is people retiring and leaving the cities for smaller communities.
“If we look at Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver, we're seeing very significant flow of people 55 and older moving to smaller communities,” he said.
This has impacted communities 100-150 km away from those cities.
Although retired Albertans generally flock to B.C., McQuillan said this is something to watch in the years ahead.
Another thing to watch in small communities is what happens with remote work over the coming years.
“I think it's an important trend. My sort of gut instinct on it is that you'd be looking at communities that are maybe 50 to 75 km away from Calgary and Edmonton because I think people are conscious of that fact that there are a few jobs people could work full time from home,” he said.
McQuillan thinks housing prices may also contribute to people moving to smaller communities, but again, the communities outside the big cities.
“If we talk about the rural situation, if we think about Alberta, living in areas in the north or northwest of the province, we've seen a lot of decline in the eastern part of the province. That’s going to be very hard to reverse unless we see new economic developments coming along that would really attract people into those areas,” he said.
Because the Alberta economy is more volatile due to the province’s resource base, it experiences swings in both directions.
“Right now, we've got strong economy. We still have lower house prices on the whole and then places in Ontario, British Columbia. I think that's working to our benefit.
“The question is always, how long does that last?” he said.
Back in June of 2022, McQuillan along with Michael Laszlo released a report on population growth in Alberta municipalities.
The report, which was based on data from 2021 stated, “a stronger Alberta economy may attract new residents from other provinces, but a return to the strong flows of internal migrants from the Atlantic region or the other Prairie provinces, similar to the boom years, is unlikely.”
Future growth was predicted to be based on “highly dependent on international immigration.”
Net international migration attributed to 98 per cent of the growth in Canada from July 1, 2022, to July 1, 2023. Immigrants accounted for 468,817 people and there was an increase of 697,701 non-permanent residents. The total number of non-permanent residents in Canada for 2022/2023 was estimated at over 2.1 million people.
McQuillan said a significant issue for him is that he doesn’t have enough information on this “phenomenal change.”
The “regular permanent immigration program” has not seen dramatic changes, but the temporary foreign work program’s numbers have gone up significantly.
“I don't think any of us really fully understand yet is the changes around the temporary foreign worker situation where the numbers have really skyrocketed in in recent years,” he said.
Alberta saw only a small portion of non-permanent residents, which includes work-permit holders, students, and asylum seekers, with an estimated 150,320 for quarter three in 2023.
Ontario is estimated at nearly one million non-permanent residents for the same period while Quebec is estimated at over 470,000 and B.C at just over 400,000 non-permanent residents.
There are some exceptions, said McQuillan, but most immigrants move towards the cities.
“That's been true here as well where Calgary and Edmonton tend to be far and away the primary destinations for them,” he said.
Though an overwhelming amount of international people end up in Ontario, McQuillan has questions about where this will go.
“How many of those young people who come as students will stay in the country? If they do, will they stay in the same place?
“I think there are just a lot of questions like that. We don’t know a great deal about both the international students and the temporary foreign worker programs,” he said.
When it comes to whether programs announced by the province, including the Rural Renewal Stream, to increase movement into rural communities have been successful, McQuillan said he didn’t know specifically.
“In terms of population movements, we know that here a lot of the towns and villages across the province are continuing to shrink,” he said.
Rural communities need to have a booming economy that draws people in, and in Alberta, that can change quickly.
The southern portion of the province has been seeing “significant growth” said McQuillan, which might be related to developments in energy and solar.
“A number of (southern) rural communities continue to grow quite rapidly…But in many parts of the province we're seeing either very slow growth or actual decline — especially in the smallest communities and the villages,” he said.