Queen's Park Watch: Ontario's Population Increasingly Bound for Alberta
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Queen’s Park Watch: Ontario’s Population Increasingly Bound for Alberta

The 2011 census data show what we already knew: jobs and people are headed west. What can Ontario do about it?

The first dump of 2011 census data released by StatsCan yesterday was a wake-up call for those of us here in Canada’s burgeoning rust belt. The numbers show that more and more Canadians, both new and old, are heading west to find their fortune.

While Ontario’s population growth since the last census was 5.7 per cent, close to the national average of 5.9 per cent, that’s actually the lowest number since the 1981 to 1986 period.

But that figure is deceptively high. The GTA (or Toronto Census Metropolitan Area, in census-speak) posted a creditable 9.2 per cent increase, to almost 5.6 million people. The biggest winners locally—or losers, depending how you feel about crowds—were Milton and Whitchurch-Stouffville, which grew by 56 and 54 per cent respectively. (By way of comparison, data show the Calgary CMA growing by 12.6 per cent, which is bound to prompt whoops of approval from cowboy-hat manufacturers and the Federal Tory caucus.)

Windsor and Thunder Bay were the only major cities in the country to see their populations decline.

Out west, Alberta’s population jumped 10.2 per cent from its 2006 level, and Saskatchewan, long a net exporter of people, saw an above-average population increase of 6.7 per cent. Also, for the first time ever, the provinces west of Ontario (the Prairies and BC) out-populated Quebec and the Maritimes, due primarily to growth in Alberta and Saskatchewan.

What all these numbers reflect (beyond the commitment of successive governments to packing people into the country until every once-arable acre hosts a Home Depot and a Timmy’s drive-through) is the new economic reality in Canada: 145 years post-Confederation, we’re still a resource-based economy, shipping our oil and potash to industrial powers that will use them to build iPads they can ship back here for sale.

The resource du jour, of course, is oil, notably the stuff that gets dug out of the tar-drenched wasteland that is the Alberta oil sands. Environmental catastrope or not, Mordor West creates jobs and tax revenues, and there’s no equivalent money machine hiding in the Ontario bush.

At the same time, Ontario’s manufacturing base continues to implode—a trend unlikely to turn around as long as quaint foreigners are ready to build widgets for pennies a day.

But what about Toronto? We’re still Canada’s prime destination for immigrants, our housing market is holding up. Should we be worried?

Yep. Toronto still gets more than its share of new Canadians. They’re drawn here partly by opportunities in the financial and other sectors, but also by the large immigrant communities that are already here—or otherwise because this is where the plane landed. As opportunity shifts west, the propensity of Canucks-in-training to head to Calgary or Regina rather than Hogtown will accelerate.

We also have hard prognostication to back up our feeling that we’re being left behind. The Conference Board of Canada this month published a report suggesting that economic growth in Ontario will decline to an anemic 1.9 per cent and remain crappy for the next few years at least. The number is lower than the growth figure used in Ontario’s government projections, meaning that we can forget about belt-tightening and resign ourselves to holding up our pants with twine if we ever want to pay off our deficit.

The situation isn’t irretrievable by any means. But lacking black gold, and with manufacturing not likely to make a comeback, the end game for the province and the city has to be knowledge-based industries and new technologies. The Liberal government knows this, which is why Dalton McGuinty wants to be known as the education premier. It’s also the motive behind the expensive and controversial green energy programs, which are intended to make Ontario a leader in an industry still in the early stages of its development.

It’s unclear whether these strategies will work with a weak economy, reducing the tax revenues needed to pay for them. Whatever we end up doing now will be critical in determining whether the next generation of Ontarians spend their summer days at the Stampede or at the Ex.